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Notes from Limmud 2007

Beruriah: Truth. Myth and the Construction of the Ideal Woman

Yaffa Epstein

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[Beruria is one of only something like five women named in the Talmud.] The texts about her are in Aramaic, written much later than Beruria lived. The text reconstructs her identity: was she inflated into the ideal woman after her time?

As you read the following sources, please consider:
  1. What words are used to describe Beruria?
  2. What is the tone of the stories told about her?
  3. Discuss her character—how do these stories portray her? Positively? Negatively? Give textual support for your answers.

Tosefta to Kelim 4:17:

A stove—from when does it acquire impurity? ... From when does it become pure? R. Halaftah from the village of Hanninah said: I asked Shimon ben Hannanyah who asked the son of R. Hanninah Ben Tradyon and he said when you move it from its place, and his daughter said when you disassemble its pieces. When these things were stated before R. Yehudah ben Baba he said: "Better stated was the daughter than the son." תנור מאימתי מקבל טומאה? מאימתי טהרתו? אמר ר' חלפתא איש כפר חנניא שאלתי את שמעון בן חנניא ששאל את בנו של רבי חנניא בן תרדיון ואמר משיסיענו ממקומו ובתו אומרת משיפשטו את חלוקו כשנאמרו דברים לפני ר' יהודה בן בבא אמר יפה אמרה בתו מהוא׃

This is written during the time period Beruria is said to have lived. She is not named in this source, but is referred to as the daughter of R. Ḥaninah b. Teradyon. Some scholars believe the daughter of R. Ḥaninah b. Teradyon, Beruria and the wife of R. Meir were actually three different people. By the time of the Gemara, however, they have become merged in the rabbis' eyes.

Is it a positive thing or a negative thing that Beruria is smarter than her brother? In our world, positive. Possibly in her time not so. Does she know a lot about halacha? Note: we're talking about a stove here; of course she knows better than men about this. (There's also a Tannaitic source about closed or open doors, which may also be something women know more about.)

What halacha does Beruria actually know about? Note what she tells us about in all these sources.

OTOH, the rabbis of the Talmud don't distinguish between "kitchen halacha" and otherwise. OTTH, when the Orthodox today started allowing women to learn about halacha, it was topics affecting them directly with which they started.

Moving on to the first generation of Amoraim:

Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 62b פסחים סב ב
R. Simlai came before R. Yoḥanan and requested of him: "Let the Master teach me the Book of Genealogies." He replied, "Where are you from?" He answered "From Lod [in southern Israel]." He asked him, "And where is your dwelling?" "In Nehardea [in Babylonia]." He said to him, "We do not discuss it with the Lodians or the Nehardeans, and how much more so with you who are from Lod and live in Nehardea!" But [R. Simlai] urged him and he consented. "Let us learn it in three months," he said. R. Yoḥanan took a clump of earth and threw it at him and said, "Beruria, the wife of R. Meir and daughter of R. Ḥaninah b. Teradyon, who studied three hundred laws from three hundred Rabbis in one day, and even she could not fulfill her obligation (i.e. learn this book properly)—and you want to learn it in three months!?" רבי שמלאי אתא לקמיה דרבי יוחנן אמר ליה ניתני לי מר ספר יוחסין׃ אמר ליה מהיכן את אמר ליה מלוד׃ והיכן מותבך בנהרדעא׃ אמר ליה אין נידונין לא ללודים ולא לנהרדעים וכל שכן דאת מלוד ומותבך בנהרדעא׃ כפייה וארצי׃ אמר ליה ניתנייה בשלשה ירחי׃ שקל קלא פתק ביה אמר ליה ומה ברוריה דביתהו דרבי מאיר ברתיה דרבי חנניה בן תרדיון דתניא תלת מאה שמעתתא ביומא משלש מאה רבוותא ואפילו הכי לא יצתה ידי חובתה בתלת שנין ואת אמרת בתלתא ירחי׃

We're not entirely sure what this book is. We think it's a commentary on the Book of Chronicles.

Here Beruria is portrayed as a role model and a fast learner. OTOH possibly he's disparaging R. Simlai by saying he couldn't even keep up with a woman! Both of these readings are possible in this text.

She's become turned into a legend. If you're going to be a woman learning Talmud, you have to be a prodigy! You can't simply do as well as the average man.

Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 10a ברכות י א
There once were some thugs in the neighbourhood of R. Meir who caused him great distress. He accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria said to him, "How can you think that such a prayer should be permitted, considering it is written Let sin cease? Is it written Let sinners cease? No, it is written "sins"! Furthermore look at the end of the verse: And let wicked men be no more. Since the sins will cease there will be no more wicked people! Rather pray for them that they should repent and there will be no more wicked people." He did pray for them and they repented. הנהו בריוני דהוו בשבבותיה דרבי מאיר והוו קא מצערו ליה טובא הוה קא בעי רבי מאיר רחמי עלויהו כי היכי דלימותו׃ אמרה ליה ברוריא דביתהו מאי דעתך משום דכתיב יתמו חטאים מי כתיב חוטאים חטאים כתיב ועוד שפיל לסיפיה דקרא ורשעים עוד אינם כיון דיתמו חטאים ורשעים עוד אינם אלא בעי רחמי עלויהו דלהדרו בתשובה׃

R. Meir's response is a rather odd one, is it not? Beruria is using the standard rabbinic hermeneutic technique. She's talking to R. Meir in his own language.

So here she's portrayed as as good teacher. But she's also potrayed as very emotionally in control.

Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 10a ברכות י א
A heretic once said to Beruria: It is written Sing, o barren woman.* Does she sing because she cannot bear? She answered, Fool! Look at the end of the verse, For the children of the desolate will be many more than the children of the married women said the Lord. So what then is this barren woman? This refers to the community of Israel that is compared to a barren woman in that the Jews do not bear sons for Hell like you! אמר לה ההוא מינא לברוריא כתיב רני עקרה לא ילדה משום דלא ילדה רני אמרה ליה שטיא שפיל לסיפיה דקרא דכתיב כי רבים בני שוממה מבני בעולה אמר ה׳ אלא מאי עקרה לא ילדה רני כנסת ישראל שדומה לאשה עקרה שלא ילדה בנים לגיהנם כותייכו׃

* Isaiah 54:1: "Sing, barren woman, who has not had children; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who did not give birth." The question here is: why is a barren woman so joyous?

This is a time period when there is a lot of trying to pull things out of Biblical verses. It's interesting that the heretic comes to her, a woman. Also, is this before she's had children; afterwards; or after they've died (see below)?

Once again, she says to read the whole of the verse. She says it doesn't mean a barren woman but one who has had no children who go to Hell. For her, the purpose of having children is to allow them to do מצות and go to Heaven.

Midrash on Proverbs 31:10:

A woman of valour who can find? They said, it once happened that R. Meir sat learning Torah on a Shabbos afternoon in the House of Study. While he was there his two sons died. What did their mother do? She laid them upon the bed and spread a thin linen cloth over them. At the end of Shabbos, R. Meir came home and asked here, "Where are my sons?" She replied, "They went to the House of Study." He said, "I did not see them there." She gave him the Havdalah cup and he said the blessing for Havdalah. Then he asked again, "Where are my sons?" She said, "They went to another place and they are coming." Then she gave him food to eat, and he ate and said the blessing. Then she said, "My treacher, I have a question to ask you." He said, "Ask it." She said, "My teacher, early today a man came here and gave me something to keep for him, and now he has returned to ask for it back. Shall we return it to him or not?" He replied, "My daughter, he who has received something on deposit must surely return it to his owner." She replied, "Without your knowledge, I would not return it." Then she took him by the hand and brought him to the bed and took away the cloth and he saw his sons lying dead upon the bed. Then he began to weep and said about each, "Oh my son, my son; oh my teacher my teacher! They were my sons, because thus is the way of the world, but they were my teachers because they gave light to their father's face through their knowledge of the Torah." Then his wife said to him, "Did you not say to me that one must return a deposit to its owner? Does it not say, The Lord gave, the Lord took, blessed be the name of the Lord [Job 1:21]?" So she comforted him and quieted his mind. And that is why it says, a woman of valour, who can find? ד״א אשת חייל מי ימצא׃ אמרו מעשה היה בר׳ מאיר שהיה יושב במנחה בשבת ודורש ומתו שני בניו, מה עשתה אמן הניחה שניהם על המטה ופירשה סדין עליהם, במוצאי שבת בא רבי מאיר מבית המדרש אמר לה היכן שני בני, אמרה לו לבית המדרש הלכו, אמרו לה צפיתי בבית המדרש, ולא ראיתים, נתנה לו הכוס של הבדלה והבדיל וחזר, ואמר לה היכן שני בני אמרה לו פעמים שהלכו למקום פלוני ועכשו הם באים, הקריבה לפניו לאכול, לאחר שאכל אמרה לו רבי שאלה יש לי לשאול, א"ל אמרי שאלתך, אמר לו רבי קודם היום בא אחד ונתן לי פקדון ועכשיו בא ליטול אחזיר לו או לאו. אמר לה: בתי מי שיש לו פקדון אינו צריך להחזיר לרבו, אמרה לו חוץ מדעתך לא הייתי מחזרת אותו, מה עשתה תפשה אותו בידו והעלתהו לחדר והקריבה אותו למטה, נטלה הסדין מעליהם וראה שניהם מתים מונחים על המטה, התחיל בוכה ואומר בני בני רבי רבי. בני בדרך ארץ ורבי שהיו מאירין עיני בתורתן, באותה שעה אמרה ליה רבי לא כך אמרת לי שאנו צריכין להחזיר פקדון לרבו, כך ה׳ נתן וה׳ לקח יהי שם ה׳ מבורך. אמר ר׳ חנינא בדבר הזה נחמתו ונתיישבה דעתו לכך נאמר אשת חייל מי ימצא׃

Note once again, she's not called Beruria here. Why doesn't Beruria tell him immediately their sons have died? She doesn't want him to start mourning immediately—he can't do מצות when in mourning, so he can't let Shabbos out! Hence it says he makes a ברכה when he eats—she's allowing him to do מצות. She also puts the מצות over emotion.

Why is Beruria raising this point about deposits? Of course she knows this! She's allowing him comfort preemptively, talking in his normal language. All of the things are in place so when she finally breaks the bad news, he has this ready to comfort him. She's also easing him out of denial, perhaps. R. Meir does not question why she won't tell him where they are, or why someone brought her something on Shabbos!

Or maybe it's her that goes into a fugue state, and it's her that's in denial and finding comfort in things. And maybe she doesn't know what to do; and rather than trying to prevent her husband from feeling the pain, maybe she's feeling the pain herself and is lost. In this interpretation "my teacher"/"my daughter" is (almost) literal, rather than inverted. Though is this interpretation in keeping with what else we know of her? It certainly is not with holding her up as an אשת חיל.

Note: In this home, everyone is teacher!

Do you think the following source should be read in a cynical or sincere way?

Eruvin 53b עירובין נג ב
R. Yossi haGlili was once on a journey when he met Beruria; he said to her, "Which way shall we take to Lod?" She said to him, "You stupid Galilean! Didn't our rabbis teach Do not speak unnecessarily with a woman? You should have asked 'Which to Lod'?" רבי יוסי הגלילי הוה קא אזיל באורחא אשכחה לברוריה אמר לה באיזו דרך נלך ללוד אמרה ליה גלילי שוטה לא כך אמרו חכמים אל תרבה שיחה עם האשה היה לך לומר באיזה ללוד׃

What's going on her? Is there a history between them? Did R. Yossi once quote the verse about not talking to women? Is she proving she knows Ethics of the Fathers? Is she being arrogant or flippant?

Or: Outside of the Beit HaMidrash, men and women mix, but she recognises that this could lead to impropriety. (Why did he say which way shall we take to Lod?)

How does the next source portray Beruria? How does it portray Rabbi Meir?

Avoda Zara 18a-b עבודה יח ב
Beruria the wife of R. Meir was the daughter of R. Ḥaninah b. Teradyon. She said to [R. Meir], "I am ashamed to have my sister placed in a brothel." So he took a tarkab's worth of dinars and set out. He said to himself, "If she has not done anything wrong, a miracle will happen for her." He disguised himself as a knight; he came to her and said, "Prepare yourself for me." She replied, "The manner of women is upon me." "I am prepared to wait," he said. "But there are many more beautiful than me." He said, to himself, "That proves that she has not committed any wrong; she must say this to everyone who comes." He then went to her warden and said, "Hand her over to me." He replied, "I am afraid of the Government." "Take the Tarkab of dinars; keep half for yourself, and use the other for a bribe." "And what shall I do when there is no more money left?" he asked. He replied, "Then say O G-d of Meir answer me! And you will be saved." .... [R. Meir] then arose and ran away to Babylon. Some say it was because of this incident and other say because of the incident about Beruria. ברוריא דביתהו דרבי מאיר ברתיה דרבי חנינא בן תרדיון הואי אמרה לו זילא בי מלתא דיתבא אחתאי בקובה של זונות׃ שקל תרקבא דדינרי ואזל אמר אי לא איתעביד בה איסורא מיתעביד ניסא אי עבדה איסורא לא איתעביד לה ניסא׃ אזל נקט נפשיה כחד פרשא אמר לה השמיעני לי אמרה ליה דשתנא אנא׃ אמר לה מתרחנא מרתח אמרה לו דשפירן מינאי׃ אמר שמע מינה לא עבדה איסורא כל דאתי אמרה ליה הכי׃ אזל לגבי שומר דידה אמר ליה הבה ניהלה אמר ליה מיסתפינא ממלכותא אמר ליה שקול תרקבא דדינרא פלגא פלח ופלגא להוי לך׃ אמר ליה וכי שלמי מאי איעביד אמר ליה אימא אלהא דמאיר ענני ומתצלת׃ ... קם ערק אתא לבבל׃ איכא דאמרי מהאי מעשה ואיכא דאמרי ממעשה דברוריא׃

Why do you think the next source was written? Do you think that it is true?

Rashi (living 900 years after Beruria):

One time she scorned the saying of the rabbis [Kiddushin 80b] Women's knowledge is light. (This is specifically in matters regarding sexuality.) R. Meir scolded her, "In your lifetime you will admit to their word." He then commanded one of his students to seduce her to sin. The student pleaded with her for many days until she succumbed, and when she found out (what had happened) she strangled herself. R. Meir fled to Babylon out of shame. ואיכא דאמרי משום מעשה דברוריא, שפעם אחת ליגלגה על שאמרו חכמים נשים דעתן קלות הן עלייהו ואמר לה חייך סופך להודות לדבריהם׃ וצוה לאחד תלמידיו לנסותה לדבר עבירה והפציר בה ימים רבים עד שנתרצית וכשנודע לה חנקה עצמה וערק רבי מאיר מחמת כסופא׃

Did this story ever happen? If so, why isn't it in the Talmud? If not, why was it created? Was it to show the dangers of having women learning? And isn't this the Rashi who encouraged his daughters to lay tefillin? Maybe he's using this as a warning to his daughters not to go too far!

[Many years ago I read of (but did not see) a play by the Besht Tellers about Beruria, in which the stage was laid out like a page of the Talmud, with Beruria and R. Meir on the lowest section, and each of the various commentators on a platform raised to indicate their removal in time from them; and finally Rashi on the highest platform, saying "Ah, but listen to how the story ended"—a clever concept, I thought.]

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2008-01-22 07:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I am just surprised that the Jewish literature ever talked about heaven and hell. I cannot see any direct reference here. I was always told there is no such thing in Judaism. It is a very Christian concept. There is an after life in Judaism as you know. In Jona Jona mentions Sheol when he was in the stomach of a the big fish. Sheol is supposed to be simply the place where the dead go, the place for their afterlife.

Date: 2008-01-22 07:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
"Hell" is used as the translation for Talmudic Gehinnom, mediaeval Gehenna; but it's more like the Christian concept of purgatory: (almost) no one stays there forever.

There have been those who have discussed the afterlife in great detail. Their opinions have not made it into the mainstream of what Judaism focuses on, though.

And Sheol was the repose of the dead in the Biblical era. Beliefs had changed by the Talmudic era.

Date: 2008-01-22 09:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I don't know what purgatory is. I will google for it and find it out myself. I was so put off by schools and the Christian world around me that I was not interested in learning myself.

Date: 2008-01-22 10:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I looked for both purgatory and Gehenna in wikipidea. According to Judaism the souls stay there for a year and then move on or they stay there forever.

Date: 2008-01-23 07:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Didn't I write you a postcard from גֵּיא בֶן־הִנֹּם when I was in Jerusalem? (At least, I wrote several people ones from there; can't remember if you were one of them.)

Date: 2008-01-23 01:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
No, you did not. There nothing Hebrew written on the card. It showed a historical picture of Jersulem from 1839.

Date: 2008-01-23 07:03 am (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
Ooh, thanks for this report. This is one of the talks I wanted to go to but wasn't able to. Rashi completely turning the story round is very odd, isn't it?

The interpretation I heard about her quoting "don't talk too much with women" is that R Yossi was disrespecting her by asking her about trivial practical details, so she was sort of saying, if you think women are just there to fetch and carry for you, you should stick to the letter of the law and make your request as brief as possible. Had R Yossi met a male rabbi of equivalent scholarly standing, we assume he would have greeted him respectfully and probably asked a question about a matter of halacha. Also, note how she interprets the verse; instead of the obvious reading, don't talk to women too much [because women are frivolous / improper so you should avoid talking to them], she reads very literally, don't talk too much [and waste words and her time] when you talk to women.

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