Mother’s Day is coming up and I’m wondering if there’s any Jewish basis for celebrating the day in the customary fashion. Or maybe the way Mother’s Day is celebrated is not the Jewish way.
First, let’s briefly explore the history of the modern holiday of Mother’s Day. It was first celebrated in 1908, by Anna Jarvis who held a memorial for her mother Ann, a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. Anna Jarvis wanted to honor her mother by continuing the work she started, and to fix a day to honor all mothers because she believed a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world”. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson enacted Mother’s Day to be held on the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honor mothers.
Interestingly, the founder of Mother’s Day later became an active opponent of it. Jarvis opposed the commercialization of the holiday. She believed that card, candy and flower companies exploited the idea of Mother’s Day, promoting profit instead of genuine sentiment. She organized boycotts of Mother’s Day, and even threatened to issue lawsuits against the commercializing companies. Jarvis argued that people should appreciate and honor their mothers through handwritten letters expressing their love and gratitude, instead of buying gifts and pre-made cards. She protested at a candy makers’ convention in Philadelphia in 1923 and was arrested at a meeting of American War Mothers in 1925 while protesting their profiting from the sale of carnations for mothers.
From a Jewish perspective, there has always been great emphasis on honoring and respecting one’s mother, and on cultivating and expressing sincere appreciation, love and affection. This begins with the adulation of Eve, the first mother who brought all human life into the world. It continues to the holy matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the illustrious founders of the Jewish People, whose moral greatness and purity we are constantly enjoined to emulate. Later, G‑d mandated the cultivation and display of these feelings by commanding, “Honor and respect your mother”. In Judaism, this is not limited to, or highlighted on, any particular day; but rather it is to be fulfilled to the utmost, every day, for one’s entire life.
Therefore, given the commercialization of Mother’s Day, which is not in accord with Jewish values, and due to the fact that in Judaism “every day is Mother’s Day,” there’s no special Jewish reason to celebrate Mother’s Day.
That being said, if one’s expression is original and sincere, avoiding commercialization; and in addition, one realizes that even the special attention to Mom on this day falls short of what actually should be done and expressed every day of the year, it would not be forbidden to celebrate Mother’s Day. And this might be akin to the way in Judaism, certain themes which are applicable on a daily basis are nonetheless given special expression on specific days.
For example, even though we daily recall the redemption of Egypt, we also commemorate it on Pesach; and while we daily express our gratitude for receiving the Torah, we also celebrate the experience on Shavuot. In fact, these appointed days actually draw the influence of their respective themes into the rest of the year, such that the observance of the holidays inspires and fires their daily observance throughout the rest of the year. So too, using the Jewish approach, one might view the “observance” of Mother’s Day as a source from which to draw an example and motivation of how to honor one’s mother during the rest of the year.
And even though Mother’s Day is essentially a holiday enacted and observed by non-Jews, nevertheless, since it does not involve any prohibitions, and has a rational reason and purpose, it is not a “non-Jewish holiday” per se. Thus, “celebrating” it would not constitute the prohibition of “chukat hagoyim”, observing non-Jewish practices (see Lev. 18:3; Tosephot, Sanhedrin 52b; Darkei Moshe, Sh.A. YD 172). Furthermore, if one’s mother would enjoy celebrating the day, since this would make her happy, (and who would object to receiving flowers, chocolate, being invited out to dinner, or all of the above?), doing so might very well be a fulfillment of the mitzvah of honoring one’s mother!