Sarah’s Silence

Vatomer Sarai el Avram chamasi alecha (Bereishis 16:5)

After Avraham and Sarah had lived together in the Land of Israel for 10 years and had not been able to successfully bear a child, Sarah suggested to Avraham that he should attempt to have a child with her maidservant Hagar. Avraham accepted Sarah’s advice, and Hagar conceived a child, at which point she lost her respect for her master, claiming that Sarah wasn’t as pious as she appeared to be, as evidenced by the fact that she had been unable to have a child with Avraham for so many years, while Hagar was expecting immediately.

Sarah then approached Avraham and complained about his decision to remain quiet in the face of Hagar’s allegations instead of speaking up and setting the record straight. Although she must certainly have been pained to hear her maidservant Hagar speak about her in such denigrating terms, it is difficult to understand why Sarah demanded that Avraham speak up and support her instead of coming to her own defense by directly responding to Hagar’s accusations.

Harav Meir Shapiro, zt”l, suggests that Sarah’s reticence can be understood based on a fascinating episode which is quoted and discussed by the Taz (Orach Chaim 128:39). A kohen was once pouring water over Rabbeinu Tam’s hands. Observing this, one of Rabbeinu Tam’s students challenged the permissibility of his conduct in light of the ruling of the Yerushalmi (Brachos 8:5) that it is forbidden to make use of a kohen for mundane purposes, and one who does so is considered to be misusing the kohen’s holiness. Rabbeinu Tam attempted to justify his conduct, but his student refuted his logic, at which point he remained silent.

The Taz explains that it is permissible for a person to allow a kohen to assist him if the kohen desires to do so. In this case, the kohen recognized that Rabbeinu Tam was a renowned Torah scholar and specifically wanted to serve him. Rabbeinu Tam was aware of this and therefore allowed the kohen to do so. Nevertheless, he remained quiet when challenged by his student to justify his actions, as he was uncomfortable describing himself as a Torah scholar, so he elected not to explain the true legal rationale for his actions.

Similarly, Harav Meir Shapiro posits that although Hagar reasoned that Sarah’s inability to conceive a child with Avraham revealed a lack of righteousness on her part, Sarah knew that this wasn’t the case. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 45:4) teaches that the true reason that Sarah and the other Matriarchs were barren is that Hashem desires the prayers of the righteous. However, just as Rabbeinu Tam did not want to refer to himself as a Torah scholar, so, too, Sarah did not want to seem arrogant by explaining to Hagar that her tremendous piety caused Hashem to yearn for her prayers, so she had no choice but to rely on Avraham to do so on her behalf.

Parashah Q & A

Q: Is the mitzvah of circumcision (17:12) one which is performed once in one’s life, or is it a mitzvah which is continuously fulfilled every second of one’s life that he remains circumcised?

Q: May a woman call her husband by his first name?

A: The Mahara”ch Ohr Zarua writes that the mitzvah of circumcision is not completed with the milah itself, but it is a mitzvah which continues every moment of one’s life that he is circumcised. As proof, he quotes the Gemara in Menachos (43b) which teaches that Dovid Hamelech was once in the bathhouse and grew concerned that he was lacking any mitzvos at that moment until he realized that his circumcision constituted a mitzvah he was presently performing. The Maadanei Asher notes that this proof is even stronger in light of the Gemara in Sotah (10b) which teaches that Dovid was born already circumcised. The Beis Halevi explains that the mitzvah of bris milah actually consists of two different mitzvos: the act of circumcising the 8-day-old child (which is derived from 17:12), and an additional mitzvah of being circumcised at every moment of one’s life, which constitutes a continual covenant with Hashem (which is derived from 17:13). The Chavatzeles Hasharon suggests that according to this opinion, one who forgot to recite a blessing over the mitzvah of bris milah at the time of the circumcision should be permitted to say it when he realizes his mistake. However, he notes that the Tashbatz and Harav Yehudah Assad rule that after the circumcision has been completed, no blessing may be recited.

A: From the fact that Hashem commanded Avraham (17:15): “As for Sarai your wife, do not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name,” the Radak derives that a husband is permitted to call his wife by her first name. On the other hand, when Sarah referred to Avraham, she said (18:12) “v’adoni zakein — and my master is old” instead of “v’Avraham zakein — and Avraham is old,” which indicates that a woman is not allowed to call her husband by his first name due to the fact that the Torah states (3:16) that a man shall rule over his wife and is therefore considered her master. However, Harav Betzalel Stern notes that he did not find this opinion mentioned in any legal source. He adds that even according to the Radak, it would be permissible for a wife to refer to her husband by his first name if she appends a title of honor, such as “my master,” just as Yehoshua said to his teacher Moshe (Bamidbar 11:28) “adoni Moshe — my master, Moshe.”