Zekhut Imahot: Mothers, Fathers, and Ancestral Merit in Rabbinic Sources

In: Journal for the Study of Judaism
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  • 1 Fordham University, Bronx, NY, United States

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Abstract

Rabbinic sources develop the theological concept of ancestral merit, the idea that the merits of parents, especially fore-parents, continue to offer their descendants favor in the eyes of God. The term zekhut avot is often translated as “merit of the fathers.” In this article, I ask: to whom does “avot,” in the term zekhut avot, refer? I argue that the concept of zekhut avot encompassed the biblical matriarchs in addition to the patriarchs, though this fact has often gone unnoticed or been deemphasized in modern scholarship, and that the terms “maʿaseh imahot” and “zekhut imahot” appear alongside “maʿaseh avot” and “zekhut avot” in the sources. I argue further that the figure of Rachel stands most prominently among the matriarchs whose merit assists her descendants, parallel to Abraham’s binding of Isaac as the paradigmatic event that accrued patriarchal merit. I conclude by offering historical and literary reasons for this development in rabbinic sources.

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