Interpreting the Legends of the Talmud

July 23, 2019 | Yitzchak Blau
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Interspersed with the legal material that constitutes much of the Talmud are narratives—ranging from tales about the rabbis themselves, to illustrations of real-life applications of legal principles, to expanded versions of biblical stories, to legends about Alexander the Great. In The Land of the Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings, the scholar Jeffrey Rubenstein presents fourteen of these stories, alongside his own analysis. Yitzchak Blau, in his review, praises Rubenstein for his clarity and insight, and offers as an example his reading of this characteristically bizarre tale:

A certain man from Babylonia went up to the Land of Israel, and he married a woman there. He said to her: “Cook me two [bowls of] lentils.” She cooked him two lentils. He seethed with anger at her. . . . He said to her: “Go and bring me two pumpkins (botsiney).” She brought him two lamps (also botsiney). He said to her: “Go and break them on the head of the gate (bava).” Rabbi Bava ben Buta was sitting at the gate (bava) and judging cases. She went and broke them on his head. He said to her: “What is this thing that you have done?” She said to him: “Thus my husband commanded me.” He said to her: “You did your husband’s will. May God bring forth from your belly two sons like Bava ben Buta.” (N’darim 66b)

Blau comments:

Rubenstein first portrays the wife as a simple woman who fails to comprehend her spouse. She interprets the two food requests literally and then she misconstrues the words botsiney and bava. The fact that the husband came from a distant geographical area with a different dialect may have contributed to the miscommunication. Thankfully, Bava ben Buta has the patience and wisdom not to react in anger.

Rubenstein then offers an alternative interpretation which depicts her as a clever woman who knows exactly what she is doing. On this reading, the Babylonian husband likes to give orders and becomes irritated quickly. This wise and spirited woman adopts subtle ways to express her autonomy, including purposeful misunderstanding. Bava ben Buta appreciates what is going on and maintains equanimity, supporting the woman’s efforts. Both readings appear valid. In the realm of literary interpretation, Rubenstein implicitly suggests, we should not always strive for a single correct reading.

Rubenstein also offers literary readings that emphasize wordplay and symbolism. Yet, Blau notes, like many other academic students of talmudic narrative, he ignores almost entirely the large corpus of rabbinic commentary on these narratives. Much of that commentary was produced in the 16th and 17th centuries and presents exactly these sorts of readings.

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