Rabbi I Have a Problem

Why do you pray for someone ill using their mother's Hebrew name?

An Orthodox and Reform rabbi answer questions on contemporary Jewish life


Question: I have been asked to pray for a friend who is ill but to refer to him by the Hebrew name for his mother rather than his father in order to cheat the angel of death. I respect tradition but this does seem to be verging on superstition

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

The underlying assumption that using one's mother's name as opposed to the father's is a mechanism to cheat Satan is indeed superstitious, but I have not come across this reasoning before.

There are several reasons as to why we prioritise the name of the mother when praying for those who are ill. A practical suggestion is that the parentage of the mother is by definition more certain than that of the father and so, when it comes to life and death matters, one wants to be as accurate as possible. While this reason might have made sense in times of overt persecution and mass rape, it resonates less with us today, and some might even find it offensive.

Another reason is based on the mystical belief that one's soul's essence is determined by the mother (the same reason is given for the halachic principle of matrilineal descent in determining one's Jewishness.)

According to this logic, it makes sense to use the mother's name when praying for one who is ill as the mystically inclined supplicant is essentially asking for renewed energy to issue forth from the soul.

While the mother's name takes precedence when praying for healing, it is the father's name that counts when one is called up to the Torah. This is because one's rank within the Jewish people (Cohen, Levi or Yisrael ) is determined by the father.

In recent years some within Orthodoxy have questioned the exclusive paternal reference when being called up to the Torah. It can be particularly discordant at such important moments as a barmitzvah where a mother's role in raising the young man is not given public recognition. It can be particularly painful for a single mother not to hear her name linked to that of her son at this important coming-of-age ritual. There are also a number of individuals who feel it is only right to recognise their gratitude to both parents by including their names when called up to the Torah.

The first time a gentleman, visiting our community from Israel, insisted on referencing both his father and mother when called to the Torah, it raised a few eyebrows. Now there are several individuals in our community who routinely ask that their mother's name be included and it has become, if not the norm, at least non-controversial.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

On one level, this is a quaint custom reflecting a period where Jews felt they were constantly seeking to outwit the dark spirits trying to harm them. This included putting salt in their pockets to protect them, or saying kein ayin hara to ward off "the evil eye" after someone had praised your child.

But if they provoke a smile, they should also raise alarm bells, lest the warped thinking behind them becomes seen as normative, whereas it is based on an unholy mix of fear, ignorance and superstition.

In the case you cite there are three ridiculous notions intertwined. The first is that there is an angel of death. This implies that the person's death has been authorised and the "messenger" has been sent to fetch him. Either this is under God's decree, in which case we are trying to thwart God, or it is independent of God's will, in which case God is not in full control.

Second, it is a very stupid angel of death, who is tricked by someone changing their name or being given a different one. If angels can be duped so easily, it does not reflect well on them.

Third, it assumes that everything is pre-ordained, whereas one of Judaism's great strengths is that we believe in free will. Patients may be seriously ill, but doctors still strive to find cures, individuals can unexpectedly rally and we never predict what the future holds.

We may tell ourselves, with hindsight, that something was beshert, fated, but that is a post-facto form of comfort and not a game-plan, nor an excuse to give up in advance.

What would be far better in such situations is not to try to mislead a mythical angel by name-changing, but to pray for what is in our control: that the patient has the strength to pull through (or the calmness to face death if we feel that is more likely), and that the family has the courage to face whatever occurs. Far better to pray for how to deal with reality, rather than trying magic tricks.

It is also worth mentioning that the subterfuge prayer would not work in Reform and Liberal synagogues, as most people are named after both their father and mother already.

We have two parents, why not acknowledge both of them? It is especially odd when those who adhere to the matrilineal line fail to mention mothers.

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