Beruriah: Her Word Became Law

In the second century, when women were secluded, subordinated and subservient, one woman—-Beruriah—-gained a towering reputation as a scholar, teacher and arbiter of Jewish law. Read how she argued with wit and conviction against the prevailing attitudes towards her sex.

by Leonard Swidler

Rabbi Simlai came before Rabbi Yohanan and requested: “Let the master teach me the Book of Genealogies… in three months.” Thereupon Rabbi Yohanan took a clod of earth and threw it at him, saying: “Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir and daughter of Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon, who studied 300 laws from 300 teachers in one day, could nevertheless not do her duty in 3 years, yet you propose to do it in three months!” (bPesachim 62b)

Beruriah was the only woman in all of Talmudic literature whose opinion became accepted as halachah, Jewish law. Rising above the limitations of her time and place—2nd century Eretz Israel where women were excluded from all public life —she became an avid student and devoted teacher of Torah, and a learned disputant of legal issues who was taken seriously in matters of Jewish law. Her reputation was so formidable that in the 9 stories about her (7 in the Babylonian Talmud, 2 in the Tosephta), she is held up as someone whose intellectuality and moral fervor are worthy of emulation.

We do not know precisely when Beruriah was born not when she died, but since her equally famous husband, Rabbi Meir, lived from around the beginning of the second century C.E. to 175, we can assume that Beruriah, too, was born somewhat after 100 C.E.

These were exceedingly trying times for Judaism. In 70 C.E., Roman legions overwhelmed the first Jewish rebellion against the empire, destroyed the Temple and drove most Jews out of Jerusalem. While in 60 C.E. there were perhaps 2,500,000 Jews living in Eretz Israel, by 130, two years before the third (Bar Kochba) revolt against Rome (132-135 C.E.) began, their numbers were down to 1,500,000; in 135, after the revolt’s defeat, the population was further reduced to 800,000.

After 135 C.E., Beruriah and her family moved to Tiberias, near the Sea of Galilee in northern Palestine. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish religious governing body) moved there, too—from Jamnia, near the coast west of Jerusalem, where it had been between 70 and 135. Perhaps Beruriah and Meir had lived in Jamnia as well for Meir had been a student of Akiva, the most renowned rabbi of his day, executed by the Romans for his role in the Bar Kochba rebellion.

After the crushing of this uprising, Beruriah’s father, Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon, defied a Roman proscription against teaching Torah and was burned at the stake; her mother was also executed by the Romans; and her younger sister was snipped off to a brothel in Rome. The Talmud records, however, that at Beruriah’s request, Meir travelled to Rome, bribed his way into the brothel, and rescued his as-yet-untouched sister-in-law (bAvoda Zara 17b-18a). For some time after the disaster of 135, Meir supported the family partly by copying Torah scrolls; after the death of Emperor Hadrian in 138, the Roman persecution was lifted and he was again able to teach Torah.

In the decades following the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis had consolidated the substitution of Torah study for Temple sacrifice as the central focus of Judaism. For this reason, Beruriah’s becoming a student and teacher of Torah in this formative period for all Jewish history —sole female exception that she was—is so significant for women in Judaism.

Beruriah first became an avid student of Torah, although we do not know who taught her to read or with what rabbi she studied; perhaps she studied with her father and with other rabbis, too. Apparently, she went through the intensive three-year course of study customary for disciples of rabbis at that time, and, as the story involving Rabbi Simlai also shows, did so in such an exemplary manner that she was held up as a model of how to study Torah.

Indeed, Beruriah’s reputation as an avid student was so great that it gave rise to legends about her studiousness, as in the clearly hyperbolic reference to the 300 laws studied with 300 teachers every day for 3 years. Such a legend was quite complimentary to her reputation and triply so when it is noted that Beruriah was being held up to be emulated by Rabbi Simlai, who was himself a very renowned rabbi— and that Rabbi Simlai lived over 100 years after Beruriah.

She also followed the path of all other really able students of Torah and became a teacher of Torah:

Beruriah once discovered a student who was studying in an undertone. Chiding him, she exclaimed: “Is it not written ‘ordered in all things and sure?’ If the Torah is ‘ordered’ in your 248 limbs, it will be sure.” (bEruvin 53b)

The then common mode of Torah study was to recite passages aloud to memorize them effectively. Here Beruriah not only drilled the student as a schoolteacher, but did so in a peculiarly rabbinic fashion: she quoted from the Torah and argued her position by explaining and applying the Scriptural passage. Her rebuke of the student was gentle; she tried to lead him more deeply into his studies. That this story about Beruriah is grouped with a number of other rabbinical stories about teaching indicates that the editors of the Babylonian Talmud were aware of her teaching prowess as late as the fifth century—300 years after her death.

Beruriah also participated in the discussions and debates among the rabbis and their more able disciples. In one such debate over a very technical matter of ritual purity, she opposed—and bested—her brother. In referring to Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon, Rabbi Judah ben Bava said, “His daughter has answered more correctly than his son” (Tosephta Kelim BK 4,17). In another debate, two rabbinical schools were ranged on opposite sides, whereupon Beruriah gave her solution. “When these words were said before Rabbi Judah, he commented: ‘Beruriah has spoken rightly'” {Tosephta Kelim BM 1,6). The striking thing about these reports, and others elsewhere in the Talmud, is that a woman’s opinion on Torah became law.

If Beruriah was a brilliant student, teacher and arbiter of Torah who lived an intensely moral life, did she not have all the qualities of a rabbi?—Rabbi, after all, was a title of respect meaning master or teacher, given to one expected to decide the law and live morally—yes, she did. But nowhere in the documents available to us is she referred to as “rabbi.”

Presumably, she never received the semichah (ordination) to the rabbinate that promising young men normally received at the completion of their studies, which allowed the new rabbis to make religious and ritual judgments. During Beruriah’s day there was apparently no legal reason why she could not have been ordained; the generally very low rabbinic estimate of women is the most likely reason (though with the documents available, we cannot know this for certain).

Beruriah would have been seen as an extraordinary woman at any time or place, but her exceptional quality rises exponentially when her accomplishments are viewed within the context of the intensely subordinate status of women in Mishnaic and Talmudic times (ca. 200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.).

Basically, Jewish women were expected to be wives and mothers, to care for their husbands, children and homes. Although their freedom to move about in public varied from the countryside to the city (where it was more limited) and in various circumstances, it was clearly often quite restricted. For example, in Alexandria, with a large Jewish population center, wrote Philo (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.): “Their women are kept in seclusion, never even approaching the outer doors, and their maidens are confined to the inner chambers; for modesty’s sake (they) avoid the sight of men, even of their closest relations” {Flaccus 89).

This segregation of the women from the men also characterized religious life. In the Temple, destroyed only a few decades before Beruriah’s birth, women (when not menstruating or in an otherwise “impure” condition) were limited to the outer court for Gentiles and the women’s court. In the synagogues, women were also segregated, either behind a high wall, or into a separate room, and were not allowed to read from the Torah or take any other leadership role in the services: “A woman is not to come forward to read publicly from the Torah, out of respect for the community” (bMegillah 23a;Tosephta Megillah 4,11). Under these circumstances, of course, a woman could not be counted toward the minyan (quorum necessary for communal worship) although an infant boy or a male slave might be (Mishnah Avot 3,6; bBerachot 47b).

There are several rabbinic statements recorded from the first to fifth centuries which praise and value a good wife; for example, “Who is wealthy?… He who has a wife comely in deeds” (bShabbat 25b). But far more typical of the scores of negative rabbinic comments about women are the following:

“When a boy comes into the world, peace comes into the world…. When a girl comes, nothing comes…” (bNiddah 31b).
“Women are light-headed” {bShabbat 33b; bKiddushin 80b).
“The most virtuous of women is a witch” {Mishnah Terum 15).

“Woman is a pitcher full of filth with its mouth full of blood, yet all run after her” (bShabbat 152a).

The early rabbinic attitudes are perhaps best summed up in the prayer “Praised be God that He has not created me a woman” (recorded in the Tosephta, Berachot, 7,18; pBerachot 13b; and bMenachot 43b).

As for the study of Torah, the very center of Jewish life, the deciding opinion in a dispute over whether women could study, stated: “If any man teach his daughter Torah, it is as though he taught her lechery” (Mishnah Sotah 3,4). Rather, women should “have their sons taught Scripture and Mishnah and wait for their husbands until they return from the schools” (bShabbat 21a). Rabbi Eliezer (ca. 90) said: “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman” (pSotah 3,19a). Women of Talmudic times did not venture into the heart of Judaism, the study of Torah—with one exception, Beruriah.

It is interesting to note that in virtually all the stories recorded about Beruriah, she is always pitted against a man. Moreover, she is always superior to the man or men, whether as a model of studiousness, a more devoted teacher, or as a better and even at times a triumphant disputant. This is the case even in regard to her husband, the most learned and renowned rabbi of the age.

If there was anything Beruriah could not tolerate, it was a man being pretentious about Torah:

A certain min (a Sadducee opponent of the Pharisees or a Jewish-Christian) said to Beruriah: “It is written: ‘Sing, O barren one, you who did not bear.’ Because she did not bear, she should sing?” She said to him: “Fool! Look at the end of the verse where it is written, For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, says the Lord.’ Rather, what is the meaning of ‘Oh, barren, you did not bear’? Sing, oh, community of Israel, who resembles a barren woman, for not having borne children like you, who are damned to hell.”

Beruriah clearly did not suffer fools gladly, as this story, and another one below about Rabbi Yossi the Galilean, indicate. She could be extremely sympathetic and sensitive to those she felt were sincere. But here she faced a man who was expounding Scripture in an ignorant way and who she thought was helping to destroy true Judaism.

Beruriah’s intense moral fervor and sensitive concern for people emerges in this story about her and Rabbi Meir:

Certain highwaymen living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir annoyed him greatly and he prayed for them to die. His wife Beruriah said to him: “What is your view? Is it because it is written, ‘Let the sinners be consumed’? Is ‘sinners’ written? (No,) ‘sins’ is written. Moreover, look at the end of the verse: ‘And let the wicked be no more.’ Since the sins will cease, the wicked will be no more.” He prayed for them and they repented. (bBerachot 10a)

Hers was clearly high moral advice, presented with the usual Scriptural quotation, analysis and application of its meaning. Beruriah here showed herself superior to the best male rabbinical mind and moral spirit; the clear proof of this is that Rabbi Meir took her advice, with success.

Beruriah appears in the pages of rabbinic writings as a person who lived a very full human life with perhaps more than her measure of suffering. Not only was hers the time of the destruction of the Jewish homeland by the Romans; not only did she lose her father and mother in the Hadrianic persecutions and have her sister forced into a brothel; but her brother disgraced the family by turning to banditry and was subsequently murdered by his gang for trying to inform on them.However, perhaps the greatest tragedy of her life was the death of two of her sons. Her endurance and response to their sudden death is related in this story:

When two of their sons died on the Shabbat, Beruriah did not inform Meir of (this) upon his return from the academy in order not to grieve him on the Shabbat. Only after the Havdalah (farewell to the Shabbat) prayer did she broach the matter saying: “Some time ago, a certain man came and left something in my trust; now he has called for it. Shall I return it to him or not?” Naturally, Meir replied in the affirmative, whereupon Beruriah showed him their dead children. When Meir began to weep, she asked: “Did you not tell me that we must give back what is given on trust? ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.’ ” (Midrash Proverbs 30:10)

In the midst of extraordinary suffering, Beruriah’s rabbinic style comes to the fore once again, as she tells a story and applies it to the present situation with a quotation from Scripture. Moreover, .._ stereotypical sex roles are reversed here as the strong Beruriah takes the more intellectual approach, while Rabbi Meir weeps.

Clearly, Beruriah did not fit the female stereotype of her day. But more than that, her consciousness of the oppressed position women had in the Jewish society around her was extremely sensitized, and she struck out against this subordinate status.

Beruriah knew that Rabbi Yossi ben Yohanan was recorded as saying (ca. 150 B.C.E.): “Talk not much with womankind” and that 200 years later the following was added: “This they said of a man’s own wife; how much more of his fellow’s wife! Hence the Sages have said: ‘He who talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and will at the last inherit Gehenna (hell)” (Mishnah Avot 1,5). This was the background for another Tal-mudic story about Beruriah:

Rabbi Yossi the Galilean was once on a journey when he met Beruriah. “By what road,” he asked her, “do we go to Lydda?” “Foolish Galilean,” she replied. “Did not the Sages say, ‘Engage not in much talk with women’? You should have asked, ‘By which to Lydda? ‘ ” (bEruvin 53a)

What Beruriah was reacting to was woman’s second-class status, reflected in the rabbinic statements that men shouldn’t talk too much with women, they were too “lightheaded” to waste time on, and sexually tempting besides. Here was a chance to throw verbal acid in the face of one of the denigrators of womankind. (One wonders if he had earlier delivered himself of some pompous sage quotation on the frivolity and inferiority of women to have earned this attack.)

A student she treated gently; the rabbi she called a fool. But with her keen wit, she did not simply vituperate him. Instead, she carefully followed the traditional rabbinic pattern of disputation by rebutting a statement with a quotation from the Law. Always she remained the intellectual. What a weight Beruriah’s reputation must have had in Talmudic times for this vitriolic putdown of a rabbi to be noted, remembered for hundreds of years, and given permanence in the final redaction of the Talmud.

That there was obviously some discomfort among the rabbis of the Talmudic era is reflected only in a shadowy fashion in the last line of the story about Rabbi Meir’s rescue of Beruriah’s sister. There was some backlash to his efforts and “He then arose and ran away and came to Babylon; other say because of the incident about Beruriah” (bAvoda Zara 18a). No further information about the “incident” is given in the Talmud; there is merely this ominous reference.

By one thousand years later, we find a full-blown legend about this “incident” in the Talmudic commentary by Rashi, the famous medieval scholar, on that passage:

Beruriah once again made fun of the saying of the Sages that women are light-headed. Then Meir said to her: “With your life you will have to take back your words.” He sent one of his students to test her, to see if she would allow herself to be seduced —he sat by her the whole day untill she surrendered herself to him. When she realized (what she had done), she strangled herself. Then Rabbi Meir ran away on account of the scandal.

There is nothing in the intelligence, perceptivity and moral character of Beruriah to make this story credible in any way. Would she not have perceived that her husband had set a trap for her? Is it not inconceivable that the great Rabbi Meir could have commissioned his rabbinical student to commit one of the deadly sins in its most serious form—sexual immorality with a married Jewish woman? Finally, why would it take almost 1,000 years for this story, so out of character with all the previously known documentation, to surface?

Clearly, the story was invented simply to morally annihilate Beruriah, the one woman of superior stature in the Talmud, Beruriah the feminist—for it is precisely on this point—of resistance to the subordination of women—that she was attacked. The moral destruction planned for her would reduce her to the female stereotype, a weak sexual creature who could not resist a determined Don Juan. Because she took an overtly feminist stance of rejecting the rabbinic stereotyping of women as intellectually inferior, she was told she would have to give up her life. Feminism was a capital crime!

Despite the historical bankruptcy of this late legend, it does underline Beruriah’s towering reputation in her lifetime and for centuries afterwards: the very attempt to destroy it is evidence of its power. Although the opposition was already there in Talmudic times, as is seen in the innuendo about the “incident” (unless this phrase was spuriously interpolated into the manuscripts later on), the subsequent hatchet job suggests that the enemies of what she stood for grew stronger in time.

Fortunately, the character assassination attempt was far from completely successful, for the clearly historically-based evidence of the earlier Talmudic stories remains today. A strong and positive image of Beruriah comes through even the totally male-oriented, male-written and male-edited rabbinic materials.

The fact that the Talmudic evidence was not erased not only witnesses to the vigorous reputation of Beruriah, but also to the faithful honesty of the generations of rabbis who memorized, handed on and finally wrote down, collected and edited the stories about her. This also means, unfortunately, that there were no other women then who entered and advanced into the heartland of Judaism—the study of Torah—otherwise we would have Talmudic stories about them as well.

Leonard Swidler, a professor in the Religion Department of Temple University and editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, authored Women in Judaism (Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, N.J., 1976).