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Notes from New North London Learning, Spring 2006

His Wife Was Sifting the Flour: The Stories of the Waiting Women

Dr Moshe Lavee

Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eliezer lived in the late first century/early second century; they were two of the leading sages of the Tannaitic period. "Rabban" means a nasi, or patriarch; the leader of the Palestinian community. R. Eliezer was one of the leading rabbis of his time.

These are the first two sages mentioned by name in the Mishna, the opening lines of which read:

From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening? From the time that the priests enter [their houses] in order to eat their terumah until the end of the first watch. So says Rabbi Eliezer. The Sages say, until midnight. R. Gamliel says: until the dawn comes up.

Once it happened that his sons came home [late] from a wedding feast* and they said to him, we have not yet recited the Shema. He said to them, if the dawn has not yet come up you are still bound to recite. And not in respect to this alone did they so decide, but wherever the sages say until midnight, the precept may be performed until the dawn comes up. [Examples follow.] Why then did the Sages say until midnight? In order to keep a man far from transgression.

מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבין׃ משעה שהכהנים נכנסים לאכול בתרומתן עד סוף האשמורה הראשונה דברי ר׳ אליעזר׃ וחכמים אומרים עד חצות׃ רבן גמליאל אומר עד שיעלה עמוד השחר׃ מעשה ובאו בניו מבית המשתה אמרו לו לא קרינו את שמע אמר להם אם לא עלה עמוד השחר חייבין אתם לקרות ולא זו בלבד אמרו אלא כל מה שאמרו חכמים עד חצות מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר הקטר חלבים ואברים מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר וכל הנאכלים ליום אחד מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר א״כ למה אמרו חכמים עד חצות כדי להרחיק אדם מן העבירה׃

* בית המשתה (house of drinking)—could also be a pub! Contrast to בית המקדש (house of holiness = the Temple).

The same happened in three other cases.

The legal demand is to perform the mitzva throughout the night. The Sages say until midnight; R. Eliezer and R. Gamliel differ.

So R. Gamliel is more lenient than the Sages, R. Eliezer—R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanos, not known for being lenient—more stringent. What are the halachic sources of their decisions?

After the destruction of the Temple, R. Eliezer's model or metaphor is how things were done in Temple times. For him the present is defined by the past. 150 years later, when this is redacted into the Mishna, R. Eliezer is presented as the stringent, past-oriented view. R. Gamliel's view, by contrast, is related to the daily life of his own family. He is talking about halacha in practice; this is how it applies to life today.

Even in the first Mishna we have these symbols, the two rabbis, of the two different ways of regarding the halacha.

For the sons of R. Gamliel it was clear for them they had to daven by midnight. Thus it seems that R. Gamliel's view was caused by his sons' behaviour.

Now to the end of ברכות Mishna. 2, 6-9.

A bridegroom is exempt from the recital of the shema from the first night until the end of the Sabbath, if he has not consummated the marriage. It happened with R. Gamliel that when he married he recited the Shema on the first night, so his disciples said to him, Our master, you have taught us that a bridegroom is exempt from the recital of the Shema. He replied to them: I will not listen to you to remove from myself the kingdom of heaven even for a moment.

[R. Gamliel] bathed on the first night after the death of his wife. His disciples said to him, You have taught us, sir, that a mourner is forbidden to bathe. He replied to them, I am not like other men, being very delicate.

חתן פטור מקרית שמע בלילה הראשון ועד מוצאי שבת, אם לא עשה מעשה׃ מעשה ברבן גמליאל שנשא, וקרא בלילה הראשון שנשא׃ אמרו לו, לא לימדתנו שחתן פטור מקרית שמע בלילה הראשון׃ אמר להם, איני שומע לכם לבטל ממני מלכות שמיים אפילו שעה אחת׃

רחץ בלילה הראשון שמתה אשתו׃ אמרו לו, לא לימדתנו שאביל אסור מלרחוץ׃ אמר להם, איני כשאר כל אדם, אסטניס אני׃

So he wasn't there for his wife on the first night of his marriage, and he wasn't there for there the first night after he died. As readers, we are being told by the redactor, who chose to put these two instances together, that there is a problem in his personal life.

When Tabi his slave died he accepted condolences for him. His disciples said to him, You have taught us, sir, that condolences are not accepted for slaves. He replied to them, My slave Tabi was not like other slaves, he was a good man [כשר]. וכשמת טבי עבדו, קיבל עליו תנחומין׃ אמרו לו, לא לימדתנו שאין מקבלין תנחומין על העבדים׃ אמר להם, אין טבי עבדי כשאר כל העבדים, כשר היה׃

What is the issue? He is treating the slave as if he is family, not property. (In Rome of the same time, familia included not only the patriarch and all his descendants, but also the slaves and freedmen: a wide economic unit.) Compare today with foreign workers working amongst a family today. Compare also the attempt of the Reform movement to add Bilha and Zilpa [the Patriarch Jacob's concubines] to the list of the Matriarchs in the prayers: it was really badly accepted.

So what was R. Gamliel thinking? Did he think that there was a separate halacha for the elite? Or that there is no general halacha; that you have to take each case on its own grounds? Answer: This reflects the situation before the grandson of R. Gamliel, Rebbi, unified the halacha; in this time different families had different halachic traditions.

If a bridegroom desires to recite the Shema on the first night, he may do so. Rabban Simeon b. Gamliel says: Not everyone who desires to pass as a scholar may do so. חתן אם רצה לקרות את שמע בלילה הראשון, קורא׃ רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר, לא כל הרוצה ליטול את השם ייטול׃

So who gets to decide? The Mishna leaves it vague.

On the one hand R. Gamliel is representative of a more open halachic approach, on the other it's open to subversion by an elite.

Note also that the mishna follows the pattern of legislation, then a story, then a legal ruling which does not follow the original legislation: the legislation must be modified in the light of real-life application.

The Babylonian Talmud brings a ברייתה in next to the above mishna (Berachot 16b):

Our rabbis taught: For male and female slaves no row [of comforters] is formed, nor is the blessing of mourners said, nor is condolence offered. When the bondwoman of R. Eliezer died, his disciples went in to condole with him. When he saw them he went up to an upper chamber, but they went up after him. He then went into an ante-room and they followed him there. He then went into the dining hall and they followed him there. He said to them, I thought you would be scalded with warm water; I see you are not scalded even with boiling hot water*. Have I not taught you that a row of comforters is not made for male and female slaves, and that a blessing of mourners is not said for them, nor is condolence said for them? What then do they say for them? The same as they say to a man for his ox and his ass: "May the Almighty replenish your loss." So for his male and female slave they say to him, "May the Almighty replenish your loss." It has been taught elsewhere: For male and female slaves no funeral oration is said. R. Jose said: If he was a good slave, they can say over him, Alas for a good and faithful man, who worked for his living! They said to him, If you do that, what do you leave for free-born? ת״ר עבדים ושפחות אין עומדין עליהם בשורה ואין אומרים עליהם ברכת אבלים ותנחומי אבלים מעשה ומתה שפחתו של רבי אליעזר נכנסו תלמידיו לנחמו כיון שראה אותם עלה לעלייה ועלו אחריו נכנס לאנפילון נכנסו אחריו נכנס לטרקלין נכנסו אחריו אמר להם כמדומה אני שאתם נכוים בפושרים עכשיו אי אתם נכוים אפילו בחמי חמין לא כך שניתי לכם עבדים ושפחות אין עומדין עליהם בשורה ואין אומרים עליהם ברכת אבלים ולא תנחומי אבלים אלא מה אומרים עליהם כשם שאומרים לו לאדם על שורו ועל חמורו שמתו המקום ימלא לך חסרונך כך אומרים לו על עבדו ועל שפחתו המקום ימלא לך חסרונך תניא אידך עבדים ושפחות אין מספידין אותן ר׳ יוסי אומר אם עבד כשר הוא אומרים עליו הוי איש טוב ונאמן ונהנה מיגיעו אמרו לו אם כן מה הנחת לכשרים׃

* I.e. since you've not picked up that I don't want to be condoled, I now have to tell you directly.

Here, we have the opposite view to the preceding one: we have legislation, then a story, but the conclusion at the end supports the prior legislation.

The prevailing voice is from R. Gamliel, the oppositional voice from R. Eliezer.

So, why does everyone go to condole him, if they knew they were not supposed to? Perhaps they're testing him: your rules don't seem right to us; let's see how you react when it's your slave who's died. Or perhaps they merely really wanted to condole him.

Since female slaves were often concubines, maybe it wasn't regarded as halachically equivalent to a master-slave relationship, and R. Eliezer was saying he didn't want it to be considered that way. In the R. Eliezer story the roles of the wife and the slave in the other story are combined into one. But possibly also the other way around: R. Gamliel seems more keen on his slave than his wife!

Reading homosexual relationships into the Talmud can be interesting. One sees such things as marrying one's homosexual partner's sister, a modus vivendi one sees in homophobic societies today. Whether such a reading is intended here... Well, the Talmudic redactors decided to put this text next to the Mishnaic one.

On the other hand, it is also juxtaposed to it to present an opposite view. Normally a text would be brought to support a view; in this case it's brought to oppose it! How then are we to understand what is going on here?

It is said of R. Eliezer that there was not a single halachic decision he came across that he lost; he remembered everything. He was the last student of the Shammaitic school still active. He wanted everyone to know that he's not afraid not to act as R. Gamliel would.

R. Gamliel is searching for leniency; R. Eliezer is being stringent because that is the Shammaitic tradition.

Note: ברייתות, though of Mishnaic-era origin, are often reworked later, and can be seen as reflecting the views of the Amoraim rather than views suppressed from inclusion in the Mishna. Because the ברייתות were transmitted orally, and were not kept word-for-word exact like the Mishna was once it was canonised, they end up subject to reworking.

They reflect a period of transition, of whether to continue bringing laws in the form of the Mishna (ברייתות), or to treat the Mishna as canonical, and commentate upon it as one would the Torah. Eventually, of course, the latter way won out, as is recorded in the Talmud.

Ketuboth 62-63 is one of the largest collection of stories in the Talmud, all of them discussing the relation between a Torah career and family life. Some talk about less familiar rabbis, others about key personalities.

Context is crucial here. The Talmud is organised according to the order of the Mishna: Family relationships are largely discussed in order נשים; tractate כתובות includes also all the commitments between husband and wife, as according to the halacha, signing the כתובה [marriage certificate] automatically entails all of the commandments in the Torah, even those not mentioned in the כתובה. One of those is the responsibility for satisfying one's wife's sexual needs. If a husband withholds sexual rights, divorce with full rights may be obtained within just two weeks! But what about people whose careers prevent them from providing their wife with sexual gratification so often?

The text starts (recall here that R. Eliezer is a Shammaite, of a minority who rule stringently):

Mishna: The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independence, every day; for labourers, twice a week; for ass-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of R. Eliezer.

Students can leave for thirty days with the permission of their wife.

Gemara: R. Beruna stated in the name of Rav: the halacha follows R. Eliezer.

R. Adda b. Ahavah, however, stated in the name of Rav: This is the view of R. Eliezer only, but the Sages ruled: Students may go away to study Torah without the permission [of their wives even for] two or three years.

Rava stated: The Rabbis relied on R. Adda b. Ahavah and act accordingly at the risk of [losing] their lives.*

מת׳:   המדיר את אשתו מתשמיש המטה [...] הטיילין בכל יום הפועלים שתים בשבת החמרים אחת בשבת הגמלים אחת לשלשים יום הספנים אחת לששה חדשים דברי רבי אליעזר׃

גמ׳:   אמר רב ברונא אמר רב הלכה כר״א אמר רב אדא בר אהבה אמר רב זו דברי ר׳ אליעזר אבל חכמים אומרים התלמידים יוצאין לת״ת ב׳ וג׳ שנים שלא ברשות אמר רבא סמכו רבנן אדרב אדא בר אהבה ועבדי עובדא בנפשייהו׃

* According to the Soncino translation; ועבדי עובדא בנפשייהו could also mean acted according to the acting of their souls.

What is going on here? The idea of personal exile to study Torah with one's preferred rabbi, even in a different place. There is a real tension between devotion to the Torah, and devotion to one's family life. Also, how can one study, yet also provide for one's family?

The story is told of Ben Azzai, who according to the early sources never married, that he spoke in synagogue saying one who does not procreate is as if he murders! A rabbi accused him of not practising what he preached. "What can I do," he replied, "when my soul yearns [חשק] for the Torah?" This word is one associated with yearning of people for the opposite sex.

At this time, in the second or third century, there is a monastic model in the air; it is attractive for the rabbis. Some refer to this culture of that of the "married monk". This model is discussed here in the Talmud.

The Talmud continues (Soncino translation):

Thus R. Reḥumi1 who was frequenting [the school of] Raba at Maḥuza used to return home on the Eve of every Day of Atonement2. One one occasion he was so attracted3a by his subject [that he forgot to return home]. His wife was expecting3b [him every moment, saying], "He is coming soon, he is coming soon." As he did not arrive, she became so depressed that tears4a began to flow from her eyes. He was [at that moment] sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed4b under him and he was killed5. כי הא דרב רחומי הוה שכיח קמיה דרבא במחוזא הוה רגיל דהוה אתי לביתיה כל מעלי יומא דכיפורי יומא חד משכתיה שמעתא הוה מסכיא דביתהו השתא אתי השתא אתי לא אתא חלש דעתה אחית דמעתא מעינה הוה יתיב באיגרא אפחית איגרא מתותיה ונח נפשיה
  1. "Reḥumi" רחומי means "love" or "beloved" in Aramaic, much as the "Bar Ahava" בר אהבה above means "the son of love".
  2. A motif occurring in half a dozen stories in the Talmud; their common component is that an essential truth is being revealed on the eve of Yom Kippur. Another story is about a butcher of Sepphoris who used to sell non-kosher meat to Jews. On the eve of Yom Kippur he ate and drank, became drunk, and fell from the roof and died. His body lay where it was, and dogs came and licked his blood. They asked the rabbi whether they could remove his body on Yom Kippur; he said leave it be, they are taking back from him what he took from them. (But since he never let on he was cheating his customers, it was the rabbi who said he had been cheating them, based on a Toraitic verse, and trying to explain what he was doing drunk on the roof on the eve of Yom Kippur.)
  3. a משכתיה, b מסכיה.
  4. a אחית, b אפחית.
  5. He neglected his home, so his home killed him. And a wife is sometimes called a בית [house].

Dr Lavee reckon's the Soncino's highbrow translation misses much of the feel of the original, and translates instead:

Thus R. Reḥumi was present in front of Raba at Maḥuza. He used to return home on the Eve of every Day of Atonement. One day he was attracted by the lesson.

His wife was expecting: "He is coming now, he is coming now."

He did not come.

Her spirit was weakened. A tear flowed from her eyes. He was sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him and his soul6 rested.

6. In one of the early printed editions of the Talmud, the י in נפשיה was missing and it then read "her soul!" This has been perpetuated in some editions such as (though along with the other reading) in the Steinsaltz—a charedi agenda!

The Talmud speaks in three ways: halacha (question and answer), midrash (verse and interpretation), and story. Each has the same content.

How often are scholars to preform their marital duties? Rab Yehudah in the name of Samuel replied: Every Friday night. That bringeth forth its fruit in its season (Psalms 1). Rab Yehudah, and some say R. Ḥuna, and others say R. Naḥman, stated: This [refers to the man] who performed his conjugal duty every Friday night. עונה של תלמידי חכמים אימת אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל מע״ש לע״ש אשר פריו יתן בעתו אמר רב יהודה ואיתימא רב הונא ואיתימא רב נחמן זה המשמש מטתו מע״ש לע״ש׃

How did they get from "that brings forth its fruit in its season" to every Friday night? "Fruit" suggests seeds, and עת (time, period) is used in Talmudic language to denote the time of twilight, which is most important in the sixth day [of Creation].

Yehudah the son of R. Ḥiyya and son-in-law of R. Yannai went and sat in the house of a Rav, and every twilight time (= Friday night) he came home, and whenever he came [R. Yannai] saw a pillar of light moving before him.

One day he was attracted by the lesson.

Since he did not see that sign, R. Yannai said to them, "Lower his bed, for had Yehudah been alive, he would not have neglected the conjugal duty." This [remark] was like an error that proceeds from the ruler [Ecclesiastes 10], and his soul rested.

יהודה בריה דר׳ חייא חתניה דר׳ ינאי הוה אזיל ויתיב בבי רב וכל בי שמשי הוה אתי לביתיה וכי הוה אתי הוה קא חזי קמיה עמודא דנורא יומא חד משכתיה שמעתא כיון דלא חזי ההוא סימנא אמר להו רבי ינאי כפו מטתו שאילמלי יהודה קיים לא ביטל עונתו הואי כשגגה שיוצא מלפני השליט ונח נפשיה׃

I.e. R. Yannai thought he had probably died, and because R. Yannai said it, Yehudah died.

One commentator said this story is about the tension between two commandments—conjugal unity versus studying the Torah. Another said it's about the importance of sex, hence the pillar, hence the light (an erotic motif in the Talmud). The lowering of the bed [a mourning ritual] can also be seen in both contexts.

The social structure here is patriarchal: the father is still in charge, even after the child's marriage. The young couple are still hosted in the home of the father-in-law; he is in charge—he is called a ruler—and the narrator seems to find this problematical.

There is no middle course for the son-in-law; he must be perfect, or he must be dead!

Note also: this story results in a woman bereaved and crying, but who remembers her? She gets no mention!

It can be argued the story here is not about following any of the rulings at the start, but about being consistent, whichever ruling you are following.

From this point on until the end of the collection, every story includes not only the horizontal relation between the husband and the wife, but also the vertical relation between generations.

There is a parallel of this story in the Palestinian Talmud which is purely about the relation between the father-in-law and the son-in-law; there is no mention of the wife at all. This is the original version, and the text was reworked into one about marital relations.

Sometimes it's possible to see through the text to its original form. Dr Lavee cited another story which a social worker gave an interesting interpretation to, but which interpretation was problematic in that the story referred to the son of a widow. Yet in Talmudic manuscripts it refers to the son of a divorcee, and the interpretation fit!

The text continues:

Rabbi was engaged [in the arrangements for the marriage of] his son into the house of R. Ḥiyya. When he intended to write the כתובה [marriage certificate] the soul of the girl rested.

Rabbi said, "Is there, G-d forbid, any taint [in the proposed union]?"

They sat and enquired the families.

Rabbi descended from Shephatiah the son of Avital [wife of King David], and R. Ḥiyya descended from Shimei the brother of David.

He went and engaged [in preparations for the marriage of] his son into the family of R. Yossei b. Zimra. It was agreed that he should spend twelve years at the academy.

She was made to pass before him. He said to them, "Let it be six years."

She was made to pass before him. He said to them, "I would rather marry and then go."

He felt abashed before his father, but the latter said to him, "My son, you have the mind of your creator, for it is written first, 'Thou bringest them in and plantest them,' [Song at the Sea] and later it is written, 'And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.'"*

He went and sat twelve years at the academy.

By the time he returned his wife became barren.

Rabbi said, "What shall we do? If we [order him to] divorce her, they will say, This poor person waited in vain! If we take another woman, they will say: That is his wife and this his mistress (זונה)." He prayed for mercy to be vouchsafed to her, and she recovered.

רבי איעסק ליה לבריה בי רבי חייא כי מטא למיכתב כתובה נח נפשה דרביתא אמר רבי ח״ו פסולא איכא יתיבו ועיינו במשפחות רבי אתי משפטיה בן אביטל ורבי חייא אתי משמעי אחי דוד אזיל איעסק ליה לבריה בי ר׳ יוסי בן זימרא פסקו ליה תרתי סרי שנין למיזל בבי רב אחלפוה קמיה אמר להו ניהוו שית שנין אחלפוה קמיה אמר להו איכניס והדר איזיל הוה קא מכסיף מאבוה א״ל בני דעת קונך יש בך מעיקרא כתיב תביאמו ותטעמו ולבסוף כתיב ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם אזיל יתיב תרתי סרי שני בבי רב עד דאתא איעקרא דביתהו אמר רבי היכי נעביד נגרשה יאמרו ענייה זו לשוא שימרה נינסיב איתתא אחריתי יאמרו זו אשתו וזו זונתו בעי עלה רחמי ואיתסיאת׃

* פרשת תרומה, after the sin of the Golden Calf: G-d lost patience and wanted the Sanctuary built—"marrying" Israel—now.

A nice ending to this story—unlike the other two, it does not end with a death!

Compare the first line to that of the two previous stories. In the first we have R. Reḥumi and his wife only. In the second, we have the son of R. Ḥiyya. Here we have Rabbi, the father-in-law.

Why did the first marriage fail?

Death is a convenient way in Talmudic narratives to denote a problem. In the previous two stories the person who died was the one who brought the problem. Here it appears to be an innocent girl. This like many Talmudic narratives is structured as a dual pattern; two halves set one against the other. Both start with Rabbi making an engagement for his son, and both concluding with Rabbi making a statement.

The answer to the death of the first girl lies in the barrenness of the second. Barrenness is considered like death. The first girl's death is a statement; it's the statement of Rachel to Jacob: "Give me sons, or else I die." It's because they are going to write a כתובה and send him away for twelve years, and perhaps when he comes back she is not going to be fertile any more. (Though perhaps not: she would have been twelve when she got engaged!)

At the end they change their approach, and she recovers.

What is the significance of the lineages? Rashi said that it is improper that the descendant of a king should marry the descendant of the brother of a king—it's marrying down! But none of the other mediaeval commentators agree with him. Perhaps it's just because in the first story they're too focused on the pedigree. It's a critique of the whole system, sending the son away for twelve years, etc. Rabbi's portrayed badly, and his redemption comes when he turns his back on the halacha because it involves treating his son's wife badly. The break comes when he sees them as people. Though there is a half-redemption halfway through too, in that he lets his son marry before the twelve years away.

Prayer can't solve problems unless the psychology behind the problems has been tackled first.

This is coherent with the presentation of Rabbi as a tough person in the Talmud, and the presentation of R. Ḥiyya as a counterpoint to him. (This is also part of a bigger story scattered throughout the Talmud.)

Another point is that the halacha is being used as means for criticising the model. The audience will be thinking of the halacha to divorce if after ten years of cohabitation there are no children—yet here there is no cohabitation!

All three narratives move from love to sex to children.

R. Ḥanania b. Ḥakinai was about to go away to the academy towards the conclusion of R. Shimon bar Yoḥai's wedding. "Wait for me," the latter said to him, "until I am able to join you." He, however, did not wait for him but went away alone and spent twelve years at the academy. By the time he returned the streets of the town were altered and he was unable to find the way to his home. Going down to the river bank and sitting down there he heard a girl being addressed thus: "Daughter of Ḥakinai1, o daughter of Ḥakinai, fill up your pitcher and let us go."

"It is obvious," he thought, "that the girl is ours," and he followed her. [When they reached the house] his wife was sitting and sifting flour2. She lifted up her eyes and, seeing him, was so overcome with joy that she fainted. "O, Lord of the universe," he prayed to Him, "this poor soul; is this her reward?" And so he prayed for mercy to be vouchsafed to her and she revived.

רבי חנניה בן חכינאי הוה קאזיל לבי רב בשילהי הלוליה דר״ש בן יוחאי א״ל איעכב לי עד דאתי בהדך לא איעכבא ליה אזל יתיב תרי סרי שני בבי רב עד דאתי אישתנו שבילי דמתא ולא ידע למיזל לביתיה אזל יתיב אגודא דנהרא שמע לההיא רביתא דהוו קרו לה בת חכינאי בת חכינאי מלי קולתך ותא ניזיל אמר ש״מ האי רביתא דידן אזל בתרה הוה יתיבא דביתהו קא נהלה קמחא דל עינה חזיתיה סוי לבה פרח רוחה אמר לפניו רבש״ע ענייה זו זה שכרה בעא רחמי עלה וחייה׃

1. She would have been called that because his wife would have been living with his in-laws.

2. Perhaps an allusion to Ethics of the Fathers: "If there is no flour, there is no Torah."

The emphasised words are the same in the Aramic—there are only two verbs here: אזל and יתיב.

This story is also documented in (Palestinian) midrash; the version there is slightly different. Both R. Ḥanania and R. Shimon both went away for thirteen years. R. Shimon sent letters and knew what was going on at home; R. Ḥanania didn't. After thirteen years his wife said "Your daughter has reached age, come and marry her off." He didn't reply. His teacher, with Divine insight, said "Whoever of my students has a grown daughter, go home and marry her off." And from there the story is almost the same.

The Palestinian version is more realistic; the Babylonian version is being used to make a point, and unnecessary information is glossed over.

Yet is there also a significance to the mention of R. Shimon bar Yoḥai here? R. Shimon is also impatient; he wants to leave his own wedding and go and study. (And R. Ḥanania is not honouring R. Shimon as a groom should be honoured!)

One should ask oneself, what will lead the common student of the Talmud from the fifty century (in post-Talmudic times the "married monasticism" lifestyle vanished) to the twentieth to see the critical voice shouting from every story here. You can't see the suffering unless you sympathise with the one who suffers. It's possible to read the story and not see what is done to the woman. But if the student can see that R. Ḥanania hurt R. Shimon b. Yoḥai, who is a role model, then maybe their heart will be open to see the suffering of the women in then. And maybe even if traditional students can't see feminism here, they will see the zealotry.

Note also: R. Ḥanania spent thirteen years sitting at the academy, and didn't learn anything useful to real life: he didn't know how to find his way around his home town; he couldn't recognise his own children. Yet he learned more from sitting at the river bank than from in the yeshiva. Yet even here he is trapped in the prism of his thought; where it says "it is obvious" above, the Aramaic is שמע מינה "from this we learn", the expression of Talmudic logical inference. <rabbinical thumb gesture>

All of the stories are critical towards the "married monk" model. Though the formal topic of the collection is the marriage relation, the horizontal relation, there is also a strong presence of the vertical relation between generations: overdominant fathers, in the second and third stories; and in the fourth and fifth stories fathers who are absent because of this model.

Dr Lavee skipped the next story; I didn't have time to take down all of it, and was not fast enough to pick up my handout at the end before he collected them back in. I thought I'd translate it myself instead. Yeah, right: it's in Aramaic. Anyone want to give it a go? (Anyone actually reading this?)

R. Ḥama b. Bisa went away [from home and] spent twelve years at the house of study. When he returned he said, "I will not act as did b. Ḥakinai." He therefore entered the [local] house of study and sent word to his house. Meanwhile his son, R. Oshaia entered, sat down before him and addressed to him a question on... רבי חמא בר ביסא אזיל יתיב תרי סרי שני בבי מדרשא כי אתא אמר לא איעביד כדעביד בן חכינאי עייל יתיב במדרשא שלח לביתיה אתא ר׳ אושעיא בריה יתיב קמיה הוה קא משאיל ליה שמעתא חזא דקא מתחדדי שמעתיה חלש דעתיה אמר אי הואי הכא הוה לי זרע כי האי על לביתיה על בריה קם קמיה הוא סבר למשאליה שמעתתא קא בעי אמרה ליה דביתהו מי איכא אבא דקאים מקמי ברא קרי עליה רמי בר חמא [קוהלת ד] החוט המשולש לא במהרה ינתק זה ר׳ אושעיא בנו של רבי חמא בר ביסא׃

The sixth story: one of the few stories which achieved independent knowledge outside of Talmud story. Now even better known due to a Naomi Shemer song.

R. Akiva was a shepherd of Ben Kalva Savua [Son of a Satisfied Dog(!)]. The latter's daughter, seeing how modest and noble [the shepherd] was, said to him, "Were I to be betrothed to you, would you go away to [study at] an academy?" "Yes," he replied. She was then secretly betrothed to him and sent him away. When her father heard [what she had done] he drove her from his house and forbade her by a vow to have any benefit from his estate. [R. Akiva] departed and spent twelve years at the academy. When he returned home he brought with him twelve thousand disciples. [While in his home town] he heard an old man saying to her, "How long will you lead the life of a living widowhood?"

"If he would listen to me," she replied, "he would spend [in study] another twelve years." Said [R. Akiva]: "It is then with her consent that I am acting," and he departed again and spent another twelve years at the academy. When he finally returned he brought with him twenty-four thousand disciples. His wife heard [of his arrival] and went out to meet him, when her neighbours said to her, "Borrow some respectable clothes and put them on," but she replied: "A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast" [Proverbs 12]

On approaching him she fell upon her face and kissed his feet. His attendants were about to thrust her aside, when [R. Akiva] cried to them, "Leave her alone, mine and yours are hers."1

Her father, on hearing that a great man had come to the town, said, "I shall go to him; perchance he will invalidate my vow.2" When he came to him [R. Akiva] asked, "Would have made your vow if you had known that he was a great man?" "[Had he known]" the other replied, "even one chapter of even one single halacha [I would not have made the vow]." He then said to him, "I am the man." The other fell upon his face and kissed his feet and also gave him half of his wealth.

The daughter of R. Akiva acted in a similar way towards Ben Azzai. This is indeed an illustration of the proverb: Ewe follows ewe; a daughter's acts are like those of her mother.

ר״ע רעיא דבן כלבא שבוע הוה חזיתיה ברתיה דהוה צניע ומעלי אמרה ליה אי מקדשנא לך אזלת לבי רב אמר לה אין איקדשא ליה בצינעה ושדרתיה שמע אבוה אפקה מביתיה אדרה הנאה מנכסיה אזיל יתיב תרי סרי שנין בבי רב כי אתא אייתי בהדיה תרי סרי אלפי תלמידי שמעיה לההוא סבא דקאמר לה עד כמה קא מדברת אלמנות חיים אמרה ליה אי לדידי ציית יתיב תרי סרי שני אחריני אמר ברשות קא עבידנא הדר אזיל ויתיב תרי סרי שני אחריני בבי רב כי אתא אייתי בהדיה עשרין וארבעה אלפי תלמידי שמעה דביתהו הות קא נפקא לאפיה אמרו לה שיבבתא שאילי מאני לבוש ואיכסאי אמרה להו יודע צדיק נפש בהמתו כי מטיא לגביה נפלה על אפה קא מנשקא ליה לכרעיה הוו קא מדחפי לה שמעיה אמר להו שבקוה שלי ושלכם שלה הוא שמע אבוה דאתא גברא רבה למתא אמר איזיל לגביה אפשר דמפר נדראי אתא לגביה א״ל אדעתא דגברא רבה מי נדרת א״ל אפילו פרק אחד ואפי׳ הלכה אחת אמר ליה אנא הוא נפל על אפיה ונשקיה על כרעיה ויהיב ליה פלגא ממוניה ברתיה דר״ע עבדא ליה לבן עזאי הכי והיינו דאמרי אינשי רחילא בתר רחילא אזלא כעובדי אמה כך עובדי ברתא׃

1. Commonly interpreted as meaning my knowledge in the Torah is hers, because without her I would not have known so much.

2. Vows are important; they can't be retracted. The only way to rescind one is to find a sage who can find a way of annulling a vow based on finding an initial condition was not satisfied. (This is criticised in the NT, but it's also the way Catholics annull marriage. In more modern times, Ovadiah Yosef [former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel] also annulled a marriage from twenty years earlier to prevent the son from her second marriage being a mamzer.)

The wife of Akiva is not named here; only in a later version in tractate Nedarim (redacted later) is she named Rachel. In this case the name is born out of the proverb: the Hebrew for "ewe" is רחל raḥel. She is one of only about five women named in the Talmud. (Who are the others? Bruria, Imma Shalom sister of R. Eliezer, wife of R. Gamliel Yenta(?).)

What is the significance of the constantly recurring twelve years? In the Bible, three, seven and ten are the significant numbers, not twelve. Where does this come from?

There is a collection of stories about Eleazar b. Shimon b. Shimon bar Yoḥai, in which the number sixty occurs again and again. It has no meaning for itself but gives a rhythm on which everything else hangs.

Possibly here, however, there is significance in the halving and doubling of the twelve in various of these stories, and whether things worked out. In the fourth story the significance is that it is long enough for a girl to grow up and be of marriagable age; possibly this is the original story and the number twelve spread out from here into the other stories.

Or maybe it was picked up from the surrounding cultures, be they eastern or Graeco-Roman.

What is the difference between this and the other stories? There's a happy ending—if you ignore the fact the woman in it still spends twenty-four years alone and in poverty beforehand. Yet she initiates everything, including the betrothal. Maybe the message here is that you get the happy ending if you have consent. Yet why is it necessary to lose twenty-four years to have a happy ending? And the story still presents Rachel as the ewe, subordinate to the shepherd, and has her referring to herself metaphorically as a beast.

Harriet suggests the reading is actually ironic—the only way as a man you are permitted to leave your wife to study is if she suggests it, etc; that she is a paragon of consent. But for centuries afterwards, Akiva and Rachel were held up as a model to aim for!

It's also very romantic: everyone tries to keep them apart, but love conquers all. There's also a sense of sacrifice, on her behalf if not (necessarily) his.

In the later version of this story in tractate Nedarim more of her life beforehand is described, which plays up his relationship with her more; this may be because there is so little described in this version.

Bruiarin [sp?] describes this as an example of structural allusion: writing a story in the same structure as a Biblical story, but without the usual direct reference. The story which is alluded to here is that of Jacob and Rachel; Kalva = Lavan; Rachel = Rachel; Akiva = Jacob, both shepherds. Even their names עקיבא and יעקב, are derived from the same stem עקב. This Biblical allusion, then, is why there has to be a second waiting period. This is the only story in both canons, Talmudic and Biblical in which we have study a strong allusion to romantic love.

In Ketuvot p. 9, the right of a husband to divorce his wife after one night if she turns out to be not a virgin is greatly expanded. In Biblical law only an unstained sheet is grounds for such divorce. The Sages say even if he has no proof, even if he felt she was not a virgin, he can divorce her, and she will not get any of her divorce rights.

Then comes a story about a bachelor who just married. He goes to R. Gamliel and says, "I found an open gate." R. Gamliel says, "How do you know? How many gates have you been in before?" He blushed, and dropped the claim.

This story is undermining the whole sugiya. There are a dozen other examples in Ketuvot where the story undermines the halacha like this.

The final story in the collection reads:

R. Yossef, the son of Rava, was sent by his father to study with R. Yossef1, and they arranged for him six years. Having been there three years and the eve of the Day of Atonement2 approaching, he said, "I would go and see my family." His father heard, and took up a weapon and went out to meet him. "You have remembered," he said, "your mistress!3 [זונה]" Another version: He said to him, "you have remembered your dove. [יונה]" They got involved in a quarrel and neither of them ate of the last meal before the fast. רב יוסף בריה דרבא שדריה אבוהי לבי רב לקמיה דרב יוסף פסקו ליה שית שני כי הוה תלת שני מטא מעלי יומא דכפורי אמר איזיל ואיחזינהו לאינשי ביתי שמע אבוהי שקל מנא ונפק לאפיה אמר ליה זונתך נזכרת איכא דאמרי אמר ליה יונתך נזכרת איטרוד לא מר איפסיק ולא מר איפסיק׃
  1. Rava named his son after his teacher
  2. Closure.
  3. As if the only thing connecting a husband and wife is sex.
  4. Symbolic of love.

And this is how the collection ends—with an unresolved issue, with a quarrel.


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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