Sarah is the name that was given to the wife of Abraham, after he chose her as the mother of all the Jewish people. She is thus the first matriarch in Judaism, and the first of the so-called Four Mothers.
Originally, Abraham’s wife was called Sarai, meaning ‘princess’. Abraham was the first person recorded in the Hebrew Bible to believe in monotheism. He taught his wife to also believe in one God. In Genesis 17:15 it is written: “Sarai shall no longer be called Sarai but Sarah.” Sarah means ‘chieftainess’, from the root word ‘to command’. This name reinforces her place in Judaism as a symbol of female strength.
It was Sarah’s life dream and sustaining hope to bear a child for Abraham. When she saw that she was becoming too old, she believed that her barrenness was a destiny she had to face, and she gave permission for her maidservant Hagar to be impregnated with Abraham’s seed.
Hagar bore a child for Abraham who called him Ishmael, meaning ‘God hears’, for God had heard Abraham’s suffering as a result of his wife’s infertility. Sarah expressed a vehement jealousy towards Hagar, which led to the younger woman’s banishment. Sarah’s feelings were heard by God, who told Abraham to “listen to her voice” (Genesis 21:12). This was an exhortation held dear by generations of Jewish women!
God next approached Abraham, saying, “I will bless her and give her a son. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of all nations, and rulers will issue from her.” (Genesis 17:15). The ninety-year old Sarah laughed in disbelief upon hearing this news that she could possibly bear a child.
When Sarah gave birth to the son promised by God, he was named Yitzchak (Isaac), meaning ‘laughter’. His name was symbolic of the miracle that God allowed. Isaac was to be the future of all Jewish nations, and Sarah the first mother of Israel.
Abraham instilled God’s ways in men, while Sarah was the spiritual guide of women. Their son Isaac was the child through whom God chose to keep his covenant with the future people of Israel. This covenant was (and is still) represented by the circumcision of the foreskin of every Jewish male. “Thus my covenant will be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact.” (Genesis 17:13)
Sarah’s marriage to Abraham symbolises the ideal of love and devotion that is aspired to by Jewish couples. Theirs was a partnership of equals, their combined generosity being an example to all. It is said that the four walls of Sarah’s tent were always open, encouraging visitors. She paved the path for all Jewish mothers to come, instilling family structure, hospitality, and faith in God as core principles of Jewish life. Sarah is symbolic of the place and importance of Jewish women’s leadership in the maintenance of Judaism.