Word of the Day Akeret Bayit: Barren or Bedrock Woman?

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Being a homemaker, an akeret bayit, may be a notoriously thankless and underpaid task, in Israel as anywhere else, but this country's real housewives do at least they get some financial benefits from the state.

Israeli housewives receive free health insurance as long as they meet the National Insurance Institute definition of an akeret bayit as “a female resident of Israel who is married (or a common-law wife) whose partner is insured by the National Insurance Institute, while she does not work, either as a salaried employee or independently,” according to the insurance institute.

But what exactly is an akeret bayit? Bayit is home, but akeret bayit doesn’t literally mean homemaker.

The first word may actually have the same root as akara, a woman who is infertile. That would make akara more or less an auto-antonym, a word that means something and its opposite, like “cleave” in English.

Thus, a verse in Psalms can be seen as an attempt to capture that reversal, from an akara without children to an akeret bayit taking care of a child-filled home: “Who maketh the barren woman [akeret habayit] to dwell in her house as a joyful mother of children. Hallelujah” (113:9).

Under this interpretation, the term akeret habayit began as a way of referring to “the infertile woman of the home” and only later came to refer to the homemaker who is the “joyful mother of children” (em habanim smeha) whom the woman became in the second half of the verse.

On the other hand, the akeret of akeret habayit may be seen as referring to the ikar of the home, meaning its essence or most important element.

The late biblical researcher Yisrael Ben-Shem, writing in an essay from the early 1970s, referred to a Phoneician text from approximately 720 B.C.E. that indicates the word akara could mean “stronghold” or “citadel.”

Ben-Shem suggested that even in biblical times the word akara may have had multiple meanings, which could explain why the Bible provides its own definition, as in Genesis 11:30: “And Sarai was barren [akara]; she had no child” and Job 24:21: “He devoureth the barren [akara] that beareth not; and doeth not good to the widow.”

So does akeret habayit mean a homemaker who’s not infertile or one who is the bedrock or stronghold of her home? It’s not totally clear, and it turns out that in attempting to clarify what akara means, the Bible may just be muddying the waters.

Oh well, at least she still gets that health insurance.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Akeret bayit. At least she gets her health insurance.Credit: Amos Biederman

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