Jewish Women You Should Know – Beruriah, Wife of Rabbi Meir

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Beruriah, the wife of the famed Rabbi Meir and daughter of Rabbi Chananiah ben Tradyon, one of the ten Torah scholars martyred by the Romans for disseminating Torah amongst the Jewish people was a woman of tremendous learning, wisdom and piety. She has the distinction of being one of the few women mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud and the only one of these women who is deemed to be a Tanna (Torah sage) in her own right.

Beruriah lived during the 1st and 2nd centuries of the Common Era, right about the time when the Mishna, or corpus of Rabbinic law was being codified by Rabbi Judah the Prince. The Mishna consists of six orders or sederim and the commentary to the Mishna is known as the Gemara. The Mishna and Gemara together comprise the Talmud. There are actually two Talmudim-the Talmud Bavli or Babylonian Talmud, which is the more authoritative and the Talmud Yerushalmi or Jerusalem Talmud.

Beruriah was unique for women of her time in that she not only studied with the rabbis but taught them as well. The Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Pesachim 62b records that she studied three hundred Halakhot or Jewish laws from three hundred masters in a single day. Her learning was so respected that her male colleagues would often ask her views on Jewish legal matters, particularly those which pertained directly to women, among them ritual purity. In the Tosefta, a corpus of rabbinic law that is structurally similar to the Mishna, Beruriah is recorded as having challenged her father on an issue concerning ritual purity and Rabbi Judah rules that Beruriah is indeed correct. In this same source, Rabbi Joshua states that Beruriah is correct when she intervenes in a discussion between the Tanna Rabbi Tarfon and some other sages.

Beruriah was also known for not being afraid to speak her mind. In Tractate Eruvin of the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 53b), she chastises Rabbi Yosi for not abiding by the Talmudic injunction not to converse with women unnecessarily when he asks her which way to the city of Lod, when he could have simply asked her, “where’s Lod?”

There are many stories in rabbinic and other Jewish literature pertaining to Beruriah’s character. Jewish tradition portrays her not only as being very forthright but also as someone who could be extremely tender and gentle. A very famous story poignantly demonstrates this. In Midrash Mishlei, the collection of Midrash on the Book of Proverbs (Sefer Mishlei in Hebrew), Beruriah comes home one Shabbat afternoon and finds, to her horror, that her two sons have passed away. She covers them gingerly with a blanket and awaits the arrival of her husband Meir from the Beit Midrash or house of study in time to make Havdalah, the ritual to mark the end of Shabbat. Rather than telling him out rightly of his sons’ deaths, Beruriah engages in a lengthy conversation so that she can broach the terrible news as gently as she can. When Meir asks after his sons, she tells him that they went out and begins to prepare the Saturday evening meal as well as to make Havdalah.

After Havdalah and after Rabbi Meir had finished eating his meal, Beruriah asks him a very cryptic question regarding whether one must return an item which was left in one’s care for a significant period when the original owner of the item returns to retrieve it. The manner in which Beruriah phrased this question is very much like one would when discussing halakhic matters and the item in question is, of course, their two sons. Rabbi Meir is astonished at the question and asks Beruriah why she would question the owner’s right to his property whereupon Beruriah escorts Rabbi Meir into the room where their sons lay. Upon seeing that his sons had died, Rabbi Meir weeps and Beruriah reminds him that the original owner, I.E. G-d, has come to claim them. In response, Rabbi Meir quotes Proverbs 31:10, “A woman of valor, who can find”.

Unfortunately, this was not the only tragic episode in Beruriah’s life. Her mother and brother were martyred along with her father by the Romans on account of teaching Torah and her sister was sold into prostitution. In the latter case, Beruriah convinces Rabbi Meir to rescue her sister and having successfully done so, he and Beruriah are forced to flee to Babylonia, present-day Iraq to distance themselves from the Romans who ordered Beruriah’s sister’s fate.

The strength of Beruriah’s character is also displayed in a story concerning some neighbors who annoyed Rabbi Meir to no end. Rabbi Meir in his frustration prayed for their destruction, but Beruriah instructed him to pray for their repentance instead, using her interpretation of a verse from Psalms (104:35) to bolster her argument.

Despite her tremendous wisdom and erudition, a legend concerning her death which was first penned by the 11th century sage Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), deemed to be the greatest Jewish Biblical and rabbinic commentator has cast a shadow over Beruriah and has placed her in a negative light. In his commentary to Tractate Avodah Zarah 18b of the Babylonian Talmud, a tractate which concerns itself largely with the religious and other customs of the non-Jews living in close proximity to Israel, Beruriah mocks a Talmudic assertion that women are lightheaded and to prove her wrong, Rabbi Meir sends one of his students specifically to seduce her. The student succeeds, proving the point that all women are able to be swayed, regardless of the wisdom and knowledge they have attained. Utterly ashamed, Beruriah commits suicide by strangling herself.

Rashi’s explanation of Beruriah’s death did not sit well with everyone. Rabenu Nissim ben Yakov of Kairouan explains that after Rabbi Meir’s heroic rescue of her sister, she had to flee to Babylonia so that the Romans wouldn’t find her.

Despite the mixed perception of her in rabbinic literature, Beruriah’s story and legacy are much admired by women of all Jewish backgrounds and affiliations. She provides an excellent example of a very learned scholarly woman which gives support to women who wish to engage in serious Torah learning which was, until recently, not easily accessible to them. In the Orthodox community, there are an increasing number of seminaries and other educational institutions which allow women to do advanced Jewish learning. Despite being a woman at a time when women’s Torah study was the exception and not the rule, Beruriah shows us that she is able to hold her own and is even considered something of a halakhic or Jewish legal authority. Beruriah’s model of profound inner strength and wisdom in the face of unspeakable tragedy is also something which we can all emulate.

write by Erwin Izquierdo

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