This morning (in about ten minutes, in fact) I am teaching a class on "Women in the Talmud."
Many books have been written, from both Jewish and secular perspectives, on the Jewish and non-Jewish women of the talmudic era, on the role of women in the evolution of Torah, on specific women who are mentioned in the Talmud, on relations between men and women in those days, etc.
To my mind, when dealing with the Talmud we ought to remember that this is not intended to be an historical or biographical document. It is fundamentally a work of law, analyzing the connection between law and the Torah's physical text, and all of the non-legal material present is there because of its connection to law, or to the events and ideas involved in daily Jewish life. Therefore, all of the material we find in the Talmud, whether about men or about women, is not to be taken as comprehensive.
Further, one need be extremely careful in making assumptions about the deeper meaning of stories when engaging in deconstruction. I've seen some pretty awful stuff out there, based entirely on the authors' ignorance of the greater talmudic canon, as well as basic Hebrew and Aramaic.
My goal today will be to talk about some of the roles Jewish women filled in that time, based on certain accounts presented in the Gemara.
We'll look at some typical roles for that era:
The Jewish mother
Abayye’s nanny - Medicines and therapeutic treatments
Yalta - Healed Rav Amram Chasida
Mother of Rav Achadbavi bar Ami - Curing someone of giluya
Rachel supporting Rabbi Akiva
Mar Ukva’s wife escapes the oven unharmed, due to her tzedakah
Abba Chilkiah’s wife brings rain, due to her tzedakah
A maid in Rebbe’s household
The widow in Rabban Gamliel’s neighborhood
We'll also look at some less “typical” roles for that era:
Beruriah (daughter of R’ Chanina ben Tradyon, wife of Rabbi Meir)
Yalta (daughter of Rabbah bar Avuha, wife of Rav Nachman)
Daughter of Elisha ben Avuyah
Stickler for mitzvot
Queen Helene of Adiabene and the Succah
Mother of Mar bereih d’Raveina and the Matzah
Kimchit and her hair
Rav Chisda’s daughter and the un-treibered meat
Ima Shalom (sister of Rabban Gamliel, wife of Rabbi Eliezer)
A maid in Rebbe’s household - Translations and witticisms
And we'll look at two interesting questions:
How did women become scholarly in those days, in a spoken tradition?
The role of the maid, in Talmudic anecdotes
Some sources we'll use:
Talmud, Ketuvot 104a
Rebbe's maid went up to the roof, and said, “The Heavens request Rebbe and the earthly realm requests Rebbe. May it be Gd’s will that the earthly realm should overpower the Heavens!”
When she saw how often Rebbe had to go to the bathroom, and remove his phylacteries and then put them back on, and how he was in great pain, she said, “May it be Gd’s will that the Heavens should overpower the earthly realm!”
The sages were not silent in their prayers for Gd’s mercy, so she took a pitcher of water and threw it from the roof. The praying people paused, and Rebbe passed away.
Tosefta Kelim, Bava Metzia 1:6
A klostra [hinge-bolt]: Rabbi Tarfon says this can become tamei. The sages say it remains tahor. Beruriah said: One may let it fall from one door and attach it to another on Shabbat. This was reported to Rabbi Yehoshua, who said, “Beruriah has spoken well.”
Talmud, Berachot 51b
Ulla visited Rav Nachman, broke bread and then recited the blessing. He gave the kos shel berachah to Rav Nachman.
Rav Nachman said to him: Master, give the cup to Yalta.
[Ulla demurred, saying that she benefits through Rav Nachman]
When Yalta heard this, she rose in rage, went to the winecellar and smashed 400 barrels of wine. Rav Nachman said to him: Master, give her another cup.
Ulla sent a message to her, “The whole barrel is blessed.”
Yalta sent back, “Wanderers are filled with words, the way that rags are filled with lice.”
Talmud, Succah 2b
A Succah that is more than twenty amah tall is disqualified. Rabbi Yehudah approved of a Succah being even forty or fifty amah high.
Rabbi Yehudah reported that once, when Queen Hilni was in Lud, her Succah was taller than twenty amah. The sages entered and exited, and didn’t say anything.
They replied: Will you bring proof from there? Women are exempt from Succah.
Rabbi Yehudah responded: She had seven sons! Further, she did everything upon the instruction of the sages.
Talmud, Shabbat 116a-b
Imma Shalom, wife of Rabbi Eliezer, was the sister of Rabban Gamliel. There was a philosopher, who had a reputation of not accepting bribes, in his neighborhood. They wished to expose him for ridicule.
Imma Shalom sent him a gold lamp, and then went to him and said, “I would like to take a share of my family’s estate.”
The philosopher replied, “Take a share.”
She replied, “It is written for us, ‘Where there is a son, a daughter does not inherit.’”
The philosopher replied, “From the day you were exiled from your land, the Torah of Moses was removed, and the law of the Evangelium has been given, in which it is written, ‘Daughter and son inherit as one.’”
The next day, Rabban Gamliel sent him a Libyan donkey.
The philosopher then told them, “I read to the end of the Evangelium, and there it is written, ‘I have not come to detract from the Torah of Moses, and I have not come to add to the Torah of Moses.’ And in the Torah of Moses it is written that a daughter does not inherit where there is a son.”
Imma Shalom said to him, “Your light shines forth like a lamp!” To which Rabban Gamliel added, “The donkey came and kicked over the lamp.”
Talmud, Sotah 20a
Ben Azzai said: A man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, for if she will drink Sotah water then the merit of study will still suspend any punishment..
Rabbi Eliezer said: One who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her tiflut.
Talmud, Moed Katan 17a
The maid of Rebbe’s household saw a man striking his adult son. She said, “Let him be excommunicated, for he violated, ‘Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.’”
Talmud Yerushalmi, Moed Katan 3:1
A maid from the house of Bar Pata was passing before a synagogue, and she saw a teacher striking a student more than necessary. She said, “May that man be excommunicated!”
He went and asked Rabbi Acha, who told him that he should worry for his life.