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Hagar And Ishmael In Synagogues For New Year Hopefulness – OpEd


During the Jewish new year holy day of Rosh HaShanah, Synagogues throughout the world read the Torah chapters of Genesis 21 and 22; the narrations of Abraham, the Hebrew’s (Genesis 14:13) two first born sons: Ishmael, Abraham’s first born son of Hagar the Egyptian; and Issac, Abraham’s first born son of Sarah, the Hebrew.

In the Muslim account Abraham has two separate families. His Jewish descendants come from Abraham’s marriage to his cousin-wife Sarah; and his Arab descendants come from Hagar, his Egyptian concubine. Hagar had been given to Sarah as a gift from Pharaoh’s sister and, although Sarah had initially allowed her husband to sleep with Hagar, Sarah became jealous when she remained barren while Hagar became pregnant and gave birth to Ishmael.

On these special high holy days Jews read about Prophets Ishmael as well as Isaac. Reading about the patriarch of the Arab people is part of our Jewish tradition because these events are important to our identity as Jews and Chapter 21, the story of the birth and banishment of Ishmael, establishes our Jewish connection to God’s non-Jewish children. 

Everybody knows that God tested Prophet Abraham by calling upon Abraham to sacrifice his two first born sons; and although the Qur’an does not name the son tested; both Muslims and Jews can believe that “Ishmael, like his half-brother Isaac, was spared from this terrible fate.”

The following narration, transmitted orally in both Arabic and Hebrew for many centuries, and finally written down in several different versions in the early 19th century, illustrates how the tests of these two brothers Ishmael and Isaac; at their two holy places Mecca and Jerusalem, can be closely connected even though these places are geographically separated by 765 miles. 

Some say this happened in the age of Noah, and others say in the generation after Prophet Abraham was born. 

“Two brothers who inherited a ‘valley to hilltop’ farm from their father divided the land in half so that each one could farm his own section. Over time, the older brother married and had four children, while the younger brother was still not married.

One year there was very little rain, and the crop was very meagre. This was at the beginning of a long-term drought that would turn the whole valley into an arid, treeless, desert where even grain did not grow, and all the springs dried up.

The younger brother lay awake one night praying and thought: “My brother has a wife and four children to feed, and I have no children. He needs more grain than I do, especially now when grain is scarce.”

So that night, the younger brother went to his barn, gathered a large sack of wheat, and left his wheat in his brother’s barn. Then he returned home, feeling pleased with himself.

Earlier that very same night, the older brother was also lying awake praying for rain when he thought: “In my old age, my wife and I will have our grown children to take care of us, as well as grandchildren to enjoy, while my brother may have no children. He should at least sell more grain from his fields now, to provide for himself in his old age.

So that night, the older brother also gathered a large sack of wheat, and left it in his brother’s barn, and returned home, feeling pleased with himself.

The next morning, the younger brother, surprised to see that the amount of grain in his barn seemed unchanged, said “I did not take as much wheat as I thought. Tonight I’ll take more.” That same morning, the older brother, standing in his barn, was thinking the same thoughts.

After night fell, each brother gathered a greater amount of wheat from his barn and in the dark, secretly delivered it to his brother’s barn.

The next morning, the brothers were again puzzled and perplexed. “How can I be mistaken?” each one thought. “There’s the same amount of grain here as there was before. This is impossible! Tonight I’ll make no mistake. I’ll take two large sacks.”

The third night, more determined than ever, each brother gathered two large sacks of wheat from his barn, loaded them onto a cart, and slowly pulled his cart toward his brother’s barn. In the moonlight, each brother noticed a figure in the distance.

When the two brothers got closer, each recognized the form of the other and the load he was pulling, and they both realized what had happened! Without a word, they dropped the ropes of their carts, ran to each other and embraced.

Only God can make anything holy, and God thought the brothers’ love and concern for each other made their descendants worthy to rebuild a primordial Holy House in this valley; and later to build a new Holy House on that hill. So God sent Messengers to their descendants to guide them to do this.

When all those, both near and far, who revere these sacred places as a standard, share it in love with everyone else who reveres it, then Abraham’s request for Allah to “Make this a land of peace, and provide its people with the produce of the land” (Qur’an 2:126) will be extended throughout the world; and all the spiritual children of Prophet Abraham will live in Holiness, Kindness Prosperity and Peace.

Christians and Jews believe the hill is Jerusalem. Muslims believe the valley is Mecca. I believe they are both right and God willing, someday everyone may see both cities and their sanctuaries as a pair of lungs; that are central to our spiritual inspiration by a connection to the One God of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. 

The Qur’an states: “‘Believers, be steadfast in the cause of God and bear witness with justice. Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing.” [Qur’an 5:8]

And Prophet Isaiah states: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

One thought on “Hagar And Ishmael In Synagogues For New Year Hopefulness – OpEd

  • September 30, 2022 at 7:56 pm

    Thank you dear Rabbi Maller for a very thoughtful and beautiful treatment of the subject. The three monotheistic religions are all interlinked through Abraham and the sooner we respect each other more the sooner will the world be a more peaceful place to live. The thing we all have to conquer though is human greed in all forms which is a handmaiden of the devil. But tolerance for each other is a beautiful starting point.


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