The Woman Who Earned a Place Alongside the Rabbis of the Talmud

Bruriah is the only female cited repeatedly as a religious authority, and rarely shown in the roles the Talmud generally associates with women. Who was she?

A mural by Hugo Ballin at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles showing Rabbi Akiva (behind bars), Rabbi Ḥanina (wrapped in a scroll), Rabbi Meir (sitting), and Bruriah (standing above Meir). Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

A mural by Hugo Ballin at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles showing Rabbi Akiva (behind bars), Rabbi Ḥanina (wrapped in a scroll), Rabbi Meir (sitting), and Bruriah (standing above Meir). Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Observation
Jan. 15 2020
About the author

David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of, among other books, Why be Jewish? and Why Faith Matters. He can be found on Twitter @RabbiWolpe.


This is the second in a series of occasional essays by David Wolpe on lesser-known figures in Jewish history. The first, on the biblical king Josiah, is available here.

If you’re ever moved to ransack the Jewish past for voices you may feel are missing—the marginalized, the hushed, the heretical avatars of Jewish history—they’re right there, hiding in plain sight. The Bible itself tells us of problematic prophets like Jephthah and Samson. The Talmud preserves the voices of Elisha ben Avuyah, the esteemed rabbi who became a heretic, and of Reysh Lakish, the bandit who became an esteemed rabbi. In short, there’s ample room in the tradition for those whose origins or whose identities are not, let’s say, mainstream.

Perhaps no presence is more powerfully symbolic in this connection than that of Bruriah: the woman whose erudition, sharpness, and wit earned her a place alongside the rabbis of the Talmud but whose reputation at the hands of later commentators, both medieval and modern, would meet a varied and sometimes cruel fate.

 

For anyone with even vaguely modern sensibilities, the position of women in the Talmud is problematic, to say the least. While hundreds of men are quoted in that great work, women rarely are, and numerous rabbinic statements slight their capacities and characters (even as some do praise them). Bruriah is the lone female who is cited repeatedly as a religious authority—a fact that calls for special attention.

Several traditions about Bruriah are scattered throughout the Talmud and other contemporaneous rabbinic works. Let’s begin with the basic facts. She lived in the earlier part of the 2nd century CE, and was the daughter of the great Rabbi Ḥananiah ben Tradyon, whose martyrdom is described in a prayer, Eyleh Ezk’rah (“These I Recall”), recited each year on Yom Kippur. She married Rabbi Meir, a distinguished talmudic sage and a friend and disciple of Rabbi Akiva.

And she had an enviable mind. According to Rabbi Yoḥanan, a later sage, she “learned 300 traditions in a single day from 300 masters” (P’saḥim 62b). This is said in the context of reproving another rabbi who had foolishly imagined he could master a subject in three months when even Bruriah, with all of her vast learning, could not master it in three years. It is one of several instances where Bruriah is shown to be not only smart but smarter than.

The same point is made more explicitly in another passage in which Bruriah’s opinion on a halakhic matter is cited alongside her brother’s. Hearing both opinions, another rabbi declares that Rabbi Ḥananiah ben Tradyon’s “daughter said better than his son”—better, in other words, than the brother with whom she grew up and who presumably received a more extensive rabbinic education than she. No wonder that generations of women have drawn inspiration from this brilliant exemplar of learning who, as one scholar puts it, was the precursor to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s (or Barbara Streisand’s) “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.”

Nor was Bruriah shy about displaying her gifts. Three stories demonstrate this particular quality. One features a student, another a Sadducee, and the third a well-known sage.

In the first, Bruriah finds a student reciting his lessons in a whisper, kicks him, and then bluntly rebukes him for not reciting out loud. The contrast between her boldness and his reticence could not be starker.

The second goes like this:

A certain Sadducee said to Bruriah, “It is written [Isaiah 54:1], ‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear children.’ She should sing because she didn’t bear children?”

She said to him, “Fool! Cast your eyes to the end of the verse where it is written: ‘For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that married, says the Lord.’ What, then, does ‘barren one who did not bear’ mean? [It means]: rejoice, assembly of Israel, which resembles a barren woman who did not bear sons [destined for] Gehenna like you.” (Brakhot 10a)

The Sadducees, frequent antagonists of the rabbis, were known for the kind of biblical literalism on display in the passage above; by sharp contrast, the rabbis emphasized tradition and exegetical latitude. Heated rhetoric was not foreign to their disputes, and Bruriah, for her part, does not hesitate to impugn both this Sadducee’s learning and his character. In defending the honor of the rabbinic tradition, she also demonstrates her superior familiarity with Scripture and proves her polemical skill. (Obviously, she herself would never have thought that the verse in question does anything but liken Israel-redeemed-from-desolation to a woman who, at first infertile, then becomes a mother of many.)

Then there’s the third one, about the well-known sage:

Rabbi Yosi the Galilean was going along the road. He met Bruriah. He said to her, “By which road shall we go to Lod?” She said to him, “Galilean fool! Did not the sages say, ‘Do not talk too much with a woman’? You should have said, ‘Which [way] to Lod?’” (Eruvin 53b)

Of the three short dialogues, this is the most multilayered. The passage, as has been pointed out by several astute commentators (I think particularly of Tova Hartman and Rachel Adler), is deeply ironic. Instructing a rabbi how not to talk to a woman, Bruriah both undercuts the legitimacy of the admonition not to talk to a woman at all—since her words prove more valuable than his—and proves her superiority in wit. Additionally, she makes it impossible for Rabbi Yosi to respond, since anything he says will compound his offense. Finally, at least in this instance, Bruriah’s knowledge of the world also exceeds Rabbi Yosi’s, since she is the one who has been asked for directions. She thus emerges his instructor in learning as well as in life.

 

But the best-known stories about Bruriah show her schooling not just any sage but her husband, the great Rabbi Meir. In this oft-quoted tale, the usually acerbic Bruriah calms the anger of her famous husband:

Certain brigands who were in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood used to trouble him greatly. He prayed that they die. Bruriah his wife said to him, “What is your opinion [i.e., on what have you based your prayer]? Because it is written [Psalms 104:35], ‘let sins cease’? Is it written ‘sinners’? [No,] ‘sins’ is written. Furthermore, cast your eyes to the end of the verse, ‘and they are wicked no more.’ Since sins will cease, they [i.e., the sinners] will be wicked no more. So pray that they should repent and be wicked no more.” He prayed for them, and they repented. (Brakhot 10a)

Here Bruriah uses a grammatical nuance—that the key Hebrew word here should be read as ḥata’im (“sins”) and not confused with ḥot’im (“sinners”)—to make a theological point. Although both her grammar and her theology have been disputed, the end of the story confirms her intuition. Moreover, Bruriah is affirmed as one whose gifts of both heart and mind are at least equal to those of her husband and arguably superior.

Scholars have pointed out that we rarely see Bruriah in the roles the Talmud generally associates with women: raising children, cooking, or shopping in the marketplace. Instead, we mostly see her speaking and acting almost as if she were one of the rabbis. The one exception, a vignette in which she is cast as a mother and wife, is perhaps the most memorable of all:

[Here is] another explanation of the verse, “A good wife who can find?” (Proverbs 31: 10): it once happened that Rabbi Meir was sitting and lecturing in the study house on a Sabbath afternoon, and his two sons died. What did their mother do? She laid the two of them on the bed and spread a sheet over them. After the waning of the Sabbath, Rabbi Meir came home from the study house. He said to her, “Where are my two sons?” She said, “They went to the study house.” He said, “I was watching over the study house, and I did not see them.” She gave him a cup for havdalah [the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath], and he recited the havdalah prayer. He again said, “Where are my two sons?” She said to him, “They went to another place and will soon come.” She set food before him, and he ate and said the blessing after the meal.

After he blessed, she said, “Master, I have a question to ask you.” He said to her, “Ask your question.” She said to him, “Master, some time ago a man came and gave me something to keep for him. Now he comes and seeks to take it back. Shall we return it to him or not?” He said to her, “Daughter, whoever is entrusted with an object must return it to its owner.” She said to him, “Master, I would not have given it to him without your knowledge.”

What did she do? She took him by the hand and led him up to the room. She led him to the bed and removed the sheet that was on them. When he saw the two of them lying dead on the bed, he began to cry and say, “My sons, my sons!” At that moment she said to Rabbi Meir, “Master, did you not say to me that I must return the trust to its owner?” He said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

Rabbi Ḥanina said, “In this way she comforted him, and his mind was set at ease.” (Midrash Mishley 31:10)

Here the usually sharp-tongued Bruriah marshals her learning to make a profound theological point: that our lives are not our own, nor do they belong to our parents or loved ones, but ultimately to the Creator of all Who bestowed them upon us. It is far easier to pay lip service to such an idea than to live by it, particularly at moments of acute pain. Bruriah ascends to the very heights of rabbinic wisdom, combining parable, Scripture, and tenderness with deceptively simple command.

We’re also witness to her keen understanding of Rabbi Meir’s needs. Since, once he knew the truth, he might not have been able to recite havdalah or even to eat, she sees to it that he can do both before revealing the awful news to him. Although, according to the convention of the time, he is addressed as “master” and she as “daughter,” it is evident throughout who of the two is the master.

 

As with other rabbinic figures from this era, it is impossible to determine anything about the historicity of the Bruriah stories; they appear in multiple texts, all written hundreds of years after she lived. The late scholar David Goodblatt has argued that she was an amalgam of different traditions about multiple numbers of different women. But there is one story about Bruriah that appears much later and gives everyone pause.

To understand it, we must first look at a peculiar and arresting tale in the talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah. In it, Rabbi Meir, at his wife’s urging, travels to Rome in order to rescue her sister from a brothel. He succeeds in his mission by dint of miraculous means. And then, the story concludes, “He arose and fled to Babylonia—some say because of this matter, while others say because of the Bruriah incident.”

According to the first option—i.e., “because of this matter”—Meir’s activities in Rome somehow landed him in trouble with the authorities, forcing him to flee to a land beyond the edges of the Roman empire. But then there is the second option: the tantalizing hint at the end about “the Bruriah incident,” which is nowhere recorded in the Talmud or in other contemporary works.

Many hundreds of years later, in his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi (1040-1105) explains that mysterious “incident” by means of a disturbing anecdote:

Once [Bruriah] mocked the sages’ statement [Kiddushin 80b] that “Women are flighty.” [Rabbi Meir] said to her, “By your life! You will eventually concede [the correctness of] their words.” He instructed one of his disciples to tempt her to infidelity. He [the disciple] urged her for many days, until she consented. When the matter became known to her, she strangled herself, while Rabbi Meir fled because of the disgrace.

Some later rabbinic authorities discount this story; others credit it. Most modern scholars doubt its antiquity. Surely, they say, it reflects, at the very least, a deep ambivalence toward a female scholar whose gifts and character were the equal of rabbis otherwise regarded as the normative shapers of Judaism. We might also note that the anecdote casts Rabbi Meir—a renowned sage and among the most important figures in the Mishnah—in a rather appalling light.

We may never resolve this particular puzzle, but from the anecdotes concerning Bruriah and other women in the Talmud we can at least draw one conclusion: namely, as the scholar Judith Hauptman has argued, that women in the talmudic period possessed a deeper familiarity with Jewish texts and sources than we assume. The need to run a home in accordance with complicated laws of kashrut and purity, the wisdom gained from listening to the “shop talk” of husbands, gave many women a grounding in Jewish law and lore. Against this background, what distinguished Bruriah was not only her unusual mind but her willingness to speak publicly about such matters—that, and the rabbis’ willingness to record her words. This was something done with very few women, and with none nearly so extensively as with Bruriah herself.

Given her propensity to wrangle with, and to best, her rabbinic interlocutors, it’s clear that she was unsettling, even threatening. That her voice was nonetheless preserved is a tribute to the magnitude of her gifts—and perhaps also to the early spread of her fame. When her martyred father Ḥananiah ben Tradyon was wrapped in a Torah scroll by the Romans and set on fire, he was asked by one of his students what he saw in his agony. He famously answered: “The parchment is burning, but the letters are ascending to heaven.”

Perhaps Ḥananiah knew how skillfully his own daughter would capture those letters and preserve them, encouraging women throughout the generations to learn, to debate, and to find their voice.

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More about: Bruriah, Lesser-Known Figures in Jewish History, Religion & Holidays, Talmud, Women in Judaism