Iron Mothers: Iron as Embodiment of the Biblical Matriarchs in Jewish Folklore

Jewish amuletic objects come in many forms: salt, the hamsa or hand, the bowl, the scroll with verses, even sword-shaped amulets. These items are meant to provide spiritual protection from malevolent forces such as demons and the evil eye and vary across different times and places.  One protective item from Jewish folklore is iron. In medieval Germany, for example, pregnant Jewish women carried an iron object to repel malevolent forces.  This was part of a wider cultural norm: across Western Europe, iron was understood to repel fairies and spirits of all kinds, and was sewed into babies’ clothing, hung above cradles and doorways, etc.  According to one Jewish legend, when the waters of Egypt turned to blood during the first plague, water in metal vessels was the only water to remain unchanged. Pieces of iron were placed on all vessels containing water during the solstices and equinoxes—considered to be a time when spirits were roving the world—to protect them from contamination.

The mystic Isaac Luria gives two explanations for the use of iron as a Jewish amulet: first, that the substance of iron derives from malkhut—the divine feminine aspect, and second, that the Hebrew word for iron is barzel, and this word is an acronym for the four wives of Jacob: Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah and Leah, who can protect their descendants from harm.  In other words, Luria suggests that iron protects because it embodies the sheltering presence of the female ancestors.  The Zohar, a seminal 13th-century kabbalistic work, also associates iron with the divine feminine, assigning other metals such as gold and silver to other divine aspects. 

 Iron amulet buckle from 18th century Poland

The statement that iron is an acronym for the names of the tribal mothers is even more striking because it includes Bilhah and Zilpah, who were Jacob’s concubines but not full wives.  Usually, when the matriarchs are mentioned, only the four full-status wives are mentioned: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.  It does occasionally happen in Jewish sources that six matriarchs are mentioned; for example, in the ancient interpretive biblical translation called Targum Yonatan, the rod of Moses is inscribed with the names of the three fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the six mothers, and the twelve tribes.  However, the expression arba imahot, four mothers, is much more common.  The oft-repeated statement about the protective nature of barzel gives Bilhah and Zilpah equal status as protectors of the people.  The letters that represent Bilhah and Zilpah even precede the letters representing their “superiors,” Rachel and Leah. (One 16th-century Jewish text (Yesod Emunah), through exegesis of a biblical text about iron, understands iron to embody all six of the matriarchs.)

Elan Loeb as Bilhah photo by Elan Loeb

Hadar Cohen as Zilpah photo by Elan Loeb

We might understand the implication of this to be that iron, as the sacred substance of the matriarchs, does not affirm social hierarchies or patriarchal designations like “wife” and “concubine,” but rather includes all the mothers regardless of whether they were relatively privileged or oppressed. Rev. Wil Gafney names that Bilhah and Zilpah were enslaved women and writes that affirming hierarchies in which Leah and Rachel are named but Bilhah and Zilpah are not “puts us in the position of identifying with slave-holding values and against the interests and experiences of our foremothers.” She writes: “Because Bilhah is one of the mothers of Israel and after all that she has been through – after all that was done to her, to erase her name from the chronicle of her descendants and their people is to do further violence to her. Likewise, when I pray the Amidah, I add Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah for the same reason.”

Many Jews have concurred that Bilhah and Zilpah should be named in our central prayers. Rabbi Susan Schnur notes that “leaving out the two matriarchs who are ‘female attendants’ doesn’t sit well with feminist or Jewish values” and suggests that they also be included in the Amidah, a prayer referring to the ancestors in which feminists have inserted the names of the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.  Josephine Rosman writes that being a Jewish feminist means elevating “those from our sacred texts who have been forgotten like Bilhah and Zilpah.. I try to keep Bilhah and Zilpah in mind in my daily life.” Combining the names of the matriarchs into the word barzel feels like a powerful affirmation that we are stronger when we come together across our backgrounds and differences.

I keep an iron nail on my altar in a velvet bag.  It was my father’s nail, and it reminds me of him.  For me, it contains the amuletic traditions of the Jewish people, and embodies the presence of the matriarchs—all of them, the oppressed ones, the enslaved ones, the queer ones, the ones of “low status” who were social outcasts or underdogs.  Iron, which my tradition holds to be one of the embodiments of Shekhinah, Divine Presence, is an element that offers great strength and the capacity to form lasting structures.  May the strength of our mothers and all of our ancestors inspire us to build our world together.

Tents of the Matriarchs from the Farhi Bible (including Bilhah and Zilpah)

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