As a child, I was a big fan of the Amelia Bedelia books. This popular series featured a dark stocking and apron-clad housekeeper who was famous for her silly but well-intentioned errors. In Amelia Bedelia Plays Baseball, the eponymous heroine is instructed to run home and so she runs all the way to her house. In Amelia Bedelia Goes to School, she is told to take her seat and walks out of the room with her chair. On in on, in story after story, Amelia Bedelia delighted me and countless other children with her literal-mindedness.
Although it is years since I read these books, I was reminded of Amelia Bedelia today when I learned daf yomi, a program in which Jews all over the world participate in a seven-year cycle to learn the entire Talmud at a page-a-day rate. We learned today about a man from Babylonia who married a woman in Eretz Yisrael who was strikingly similar to my favorite housekeeper. Here is the story as rendered on Nedarim 66b:
A man from Babylon came to Israel and married a woman there. He said to her: “Cook me two lentils.” She cooked him exactly two lentils. He got angry (literally “he boiled”) at her. The next day he said to her, “Cook me a seah’s worth of lentils (a very large quantity). She cooked him exactly a seah. He said to her, “Go bring me two pumpkins.” She went and brought him two candles (because in Eretz Yisrael, the Babylonian word for pumpkin means candle). He grew furious and said to her, “Go smash these candles against the bava (the Aramaic word for gate). Beside the gate sat the sage Bava ben Buta rendering judgments. She came to him and smashed the candles over his skull. He said to her, “Why did you do that?” She said, “I did as my husband told me.” He said: “If you did your husband’s will, God will grant you two sons like Bava ben Buta.”
Like Amelia Bedelia, this hapless housewife from Eretz Yisrael can’t seem to stay out of trouble. She takes everything literally, and is consequently always in a fix. As with the Amelia Bedelia books, which were written by children’s educator Peggy Parish as a way of teaching children about language, the Talmudic story serves as a lesson about the nuances of language (particularly as it varied between Bavel and Eretz Yisrael) and the danger of too much precision. The Talmud is comprised of halacha, legal discourse which deals with the right way to live life in all its minutiae, and aggadah, stories that fly in the face of legalistic details and show life in all its complicated messiness. This passage is of course a part of the aggadah, and it serves remind us that no matter how much we seek to dictate and regulate, there will always be the Amelia Bedelias among us who ensure that life is always full of delightful surprises – so long as your name is not Bava ben Buta!