Women do not often get mentioned in the writings of the Jewish Rabbis, not even in passing. The one exception is Beruriah, who is mentioned in the Talmud Bavli as the daughter of Hananiah ben Teradion (Tosepha Kelim, Bava Kamma 4:17), a Mishnaic sage who directed a Torah academy in Siknin, in Babylonia, and was renowned for his scrupulously honest administration of charity funds. He was one of the Ten Martyrs whose stories are told on Yom Kippur, in his case wrapped in a Torah Scroll and burned alive by the Romans for publicly teaching Torah.
By all accounts Beruriah was an accomplished scholar, which may have been a situation particular to her family, or may tell us that universal adult literacy in those days applied to women too. Even as a young girl, it is recorded, her intelligence surpassed that of her brother, though the suggestion that she learned "three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day" (Pesahim 62b) is absurd; in the Jewish world there are always at least that number of people willing and available to provide the instruction, but there are only 613 laws, so her entire education would have been completed by period two of day three of her first week in school; the phrase is simply a hyperbolic way of expressing admiration for her knowledge, and then diminishing it by placing her in a context of surfeit, of plethora, of glut, of male teachers obviously, but no other mentioned woman.
Born in the first quarter of the second century, she moved to Tiberias after the Hadrianic persecutions had taken her mother and brother as well as her father. But death pursued her; married to Rabbi Meir the miracle worker, himself one of the great sages of the Mishnaic period, her two sons died suddenly in a single day, and then her sister was carried off into exile.
Her name means "purity" (Psalm 18:27 says IM NAVAR TITBARAR - עִם־נָבָ֥ר תִּתְבָּרָ֑ר - with the pure you will show yourself pure"), and whether of soul or spirit or heart or mind is difficult to say, though accounts of her always point out how very loving and gentle she managed to remain, even with her husband, who was as arrogant a man as ever declared himself superior among scholars. But she could be sharp herself, and is recorded as telling her husband off one time for not saying his prayers properly, and in the same passage (Berakhot 10a) she ridicules a sectarian for being one, while Eruvin 53b finds her deriding a student for making a simple error, and then making a complete fool of Rabbi Jose the Galilean when he met her on the road (Eruvin 53b) and dared to suggest that she wasn't fully living up to the meaning of her name.
That name, that meaning, is key to all the myths and legends about her, which end up focusing on male Rabbis asking her opinion on matters of female purity, or male Rabbis daring to suggest that she was secretly something of a loose lady. Quite probably none of the stories relating to her purity are true, neither the positive ones nor the negative, but there was her name, lying around in Talmud with implausible history all around it (did you notice, for example, that her father, who died in Judea, was also the head of a yeshiva in Babylon?), and something had to be said to those male students who asked.
So there is the legend of Beruriah's sister, how she was in fact not killed but spared by the Romans, only to be trafficked by them to Antioch for non-Rabbinic purposes. Beruriah urged her husband to go to Antioch and rescue her, and not only did he succeed but - and again the central core of the story reflects the name - he even brought back witness testimony, signed and actuaried, that confirmed her continuing virginity: her purity. Fearful that the Romans would take revenge for his heroism, all three fled to Babylonia - a very convenient place of exile, if you are also trying to explain that passage that says she was Hananiah ben Teradion's daughter.
Purity was the tale of her end as well, and Rashi himself recorded it ('Ab. Zarah 18b), so it must be authentic. According to the legend, she scoffed at a Rabbi who quoted the Talmudic proverb that "Women are light-minded", and her husband responded by telling one of his students to try to seduce her - which, had he succeeded, might have proven her to be "light-bodied", but not "light-minded", and so again we can tell that the tale is a made-up piece of nonsense. Nonetheless it lives on, until, after repeated efforts, she finally yielded, and then the shame of it drove her to the ultimate act of impurity, suicide. "Tortured with guilt and remorse," the Talmud tells us, "Rabbi Meir fled from his home".
The trouble is, Rabbi Meir had already fled from his home, with Beruriah, and her sister, and proofs of both of their states of purity.
For those of you who can read Hebrew, without pointing, below is from Midrash Proverbs 31:10, and is the principal account of Beruriah:
מעשה היה ברבי מאיר, שהיה יושב ודורש בבית המדרש בשבת במנחה, ומתו שני בניו. מה עשתה אמו? הניחה שניהם על המטה ופרשה סדין עליהם. במוצאי שבת בא ר' מאיר מבית המדרש לביתו. אמר לה 'היכן שני בני?', אמרה 'לבית המדרש הלכו', אמר לה 'צפיתי לבית המדרש ולא ראיתי אותם', נתנו לו כוס של הבדלה והבדיל, חזר ואמר 'היכן שני בני?', אמרה לו 'הלכו למקום אחר ועכשיו הם באים', הקריבה לפניו המאכל ואכל ובירך, לאחר שבירך אמרה לו 'רבי, שאלה אחת יש לי לשאול לך', אמר לה 'אמרי שאלתך', אמרה לו 'רבי, קודם היום בא אדם אחד ונתן לי פקדון, ועכשיו בא ליטול אותו, נחזיר לו או לא?', אמר לה 'בתי, מי שיש פקדון אצלו, הוא צריך להחזירו לרבו', אמרה לו 'רבי, חוץ מדעתך לא הייתי נותנת אצלו', מה עשתה? תפשתו בידה, והעלה אותו לאותו חדר, והקריבה אותו למטה, ונטלה סדין מעליהם, וראה שניהם מתים ומונחים על המטה, התחיל בוכה ואומר 'בני! בני! רבי! רבי! בני בדרך ארץ, ורבי שהיו מאירין פני בתורתן!', באותה שעה אמרה לו לרבי מאיר 'רבי, לא כך אמרת לי—אני צריך להחזיר הפקדון לרבו?', אמר (איוב א כא): "ה' נתן וה' לקח, יהי שם ה' מבורך".
The illustration at the top of the page is not a portrait of Beruriah, because no such portrait exists. What is the nearest you can get to the first and only woman to be mentioned in the Talmud? Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a Rabbi, in 1935 (see December 27). The portrait is by Marlis Glaser, 2014.
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