Beruriah: Fiery First Feminist or Perfectly Placed Protaganist

Who is Beruriah:

- Daughter of the martyr R. Hananiah ben Teradion,
o Teacher in 2nd century
o One of 10 teachers murdered by Romans for refusing to follow ban against teaching Torah
- Wife of R. Meïr;
o one of the greatest scholars of his time
o frequently quoted in the Talmud (3rd most frequently mentioned in the Talmud)
- Born in the first quarter of the second century,

- She lived at Tiberias (Northeast Israel by Sea of Galilee)

- One of the only women named in the Talmud


ב ר' שמלאי אתא לקמיה דרבי יוחנן א"ל ניתני לי מר ספר יוחסין א"ל מהיכן את א"ל מלוד והיכן מותבך בנהרדעא א"ל אין נידונין לא ללודים ולא לנהרדעים וכל שכן דאת מלוד ומותבך בנהרדעא כפייה וארצי א"ל ניתנייה בג' ירחי שקל קלא פתק ביה א"ל ומה ברוריה דביתהו דר"מ ברתיה דר"ח בן תרדיון דתניא תלת מאה שמעתתא ביומא מג' מאה רבוותא ואפ"ה לא יצתה ידי חובתה בתלת שנין ואת אמרת בתלתא ירחי כי שקיל ואזיל

There is a fundamental problem in the mishna that was clarified during the course of a particular incident: Rabbi Simlai came before Rabbi Yoḥanan. He said to him: Would the Master teach me the Book of Genealogies? The Book of Genealogies was a collection of tannaitic teachings that formed a midrash on the book of Chronicles. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Where are you from? He said to him: From Lod. Rabbi Yoḥanan further asked: And where is your present place of residence? He said to him: In Neharde’a. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I have a tradition that we teach these subjects neither to Lodites nor to Neharde’ans, and certainly not to you who comes from Lod and your residence is in Neharde’a, such that you have both shortcomings. Rabbi Simlai pressured Rabbi Yoḥanan until he agreed to teach him. Rabbi Simlai said to him: Teach me the Book of Genealogies in three months. Rabbi Yoḥanan took a clod of dirt, threw it at him, and said to him: Berurya, wife of Rabbi Meir and daughter of Rabbi Ḥananya ben Teradyon, was so sharp and had such a good memory that she learned three hundred halakhot in one day from three hundred Sages, and nonetheless she did not fulfill her responsibility to properly learn the Book of Genealogies in three years because it is especially long and difficult. And you say that I should teach it to you in three months? After your inappropriate request, I am not inclined to teach you at all.


הנהו בריוני דהוו בשבבותיה דר"מ והוו קא מצערו ליה טובא הוה קא בעי ר' מאיר רחמי עלויהו כי היכי דלימותו אמרה לי' ברוריא דביתהו מאי דעתך משום דכתיב (תהלים קד, לה) יתמו חטאים מי כתיב חוטאים חטאים כתיב ועוד שפיל לסיפיה דקרא ורשעים עוד אינם כיון דיתמו חטאים ורשעים עוד אינם אלא בעי רחמי עלויהו דלהדרו בתשובה ורשעים עוד אינם בעא רחמי עלויהו והדרו בתשובה:

There were some lawless men living in the neighbourhood of R. Meir, and they used to vex him sorely. Once R. Meir prayed that they should die. His wife, Beruriah, exclaimed, "What thinkest thou? Is it because it is written, 'Let sinners cease out of the earth'? But has the text hoteim? It is written hata'im. Glance also at the end of the verse, 'And let the wicked be no more' — i.e. when 'sins will cease,' then 'the wicked will be no more.' Rather shouldest thou pray that they repent and they be no more wicked." R. Meir offered prayer on their behalf and they repented.


מעשה היה ברבי מאיר, שהיה יושב ודורש בבית המדרש בשבת במנחה, ומתו שני בניו. מה עשתה אמו? הניחה שניהם על המטה ופרשה סדין עליהם. במוצאי שבת בא ר' מאיר מבית המדרש לביתו. אמר לה 'היכן שני בני?', אמרה 'לבית המדרש הלכו', אמר לה 'צפיתי לבית המדרש ולא ראיתי אותם', נתנו לו כוס של הבדלה והבדיל, חזר ואמר 'היכן שני בני?', אמרה לו 'הלכו למקום אחר ועכשיו הם באים', הקריבה לפניו המאכל ואכל ובירך, לאחר שבירך אמרה לו 'רבי, שאלה אחת יש לי לשאול לך', אמר לה 'אמרי שאלתך', אמרה לו 'רבי, קודם היום בא אדם אחד ונתן לי פקדון, ועכשיו בא ליטול אותו, נחזיר לו או לא?', אמר לה 'בתי, מי שיש פקדון אצלו, הוא צריך להחזירו לרבו', אמרה לו 'רבי, חוץ מדעתך לא הייתי נותנת אצלו', מה עשתה? תפשתו בידה, והעלה אותו לאותו חדר, והקריבה אותו למטה, ונטלה סדין מעליהם, וראה שניהם מתים ומונחים על המטה, התחיל בוכה ואומר 'בני! בני! רבי! רבי! בני בדרך ארץ, ורבי שהיו מאירין פני בתורתן!', באותה שעה אמרה לו לרבי מאיר 'רבי, לא כך אמרת לי—אני צריך להחזיר הפקדון לרבו?', אמר (איוב א כא): "ה' נתן וה' לקח, יהי שם ה' מבורך".

Midrash on Proverbs 31
Beruriah was the learned and compassionate wife of Rabbi Meir. While Rabbi Meir was teaching on a Shabbat afternoon, both of his sons died from the plague that was affecting their city. When Rabbi Meir returned home, he asked his wife, “Where are our sons?” She handed him the cup for havdalah and he said the blessing. Again he asked, “Where are our sons?” She brought food for him, and he ate. When he had finished eating, Beruriah said to her husband, “My teacher, I have a question. A while ago, a man came and deposited something precious in my keeping. Now he has come back to claim what he left. Shall I return it to him or not?” Meir responded, “Is not one who holds a deposit required to return it to its owner?” So she took his hand and led him to where their two children lay. He began to weep, crying “My sons, my sons.” She comforted him, “The Lord gave, the Lord took.


What characteristics do we learn about Beruriah from these texts?

What type of woman is she?


Then Rashi comes along!

Rashi on Talmud Bavli Avodah Zera: 18b; serves as a turning point in our understanding of Beruriah (her story shifts)
Context: Rashi commenting on a story within Talmud Avodah Zera in which Rabbi Meir (Beruriah’s husband) goes to rescue her sister who has become a prostitute after the killing of their father.

The text ends by saying: "Rabbi Meir is forced into exile to Babylonia."

Rashi comes along and surmises the following background to the reason why Rabbi Meir was forced into exile:
“One Beruriah mocked the rabbinic dictum, ‘Women are flight’ (i.e. easily seduceable). Meir said, ‘By your life! You will end by affirming their words.’ He commanded one of his students to tempt her to immorality. The student urged her for many days before she agreed. When it (the plot) became known to her, she strangled herself. Rabbi Meir fled because of the disgrace.” (Translation by Rachel Adler, pg. 103)



What is Beruria’s character role in this episode? How is Rashi using her character (because he is surmising; this story is not actually in the text!) to make a statement about women?


Reconstructed Perspective

Using the texts from Talmud and Rashi's damning story Beruriah's story now appears like this:

"Once there was a woman named Beruriah, and she was a great talmudic scholar. She was the daughter of the great Palestinian rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon, who was martyred by the Romans. Even as a young girl, she far outstripped her brother as a scholar. It was said she had learned three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day. She married Rabbi Meir, the miracle worker and great Mishnaic sage.

One time when Rabbi Meir prayed for some robbers to die, Beruriah taught him to pray that their sin would die, that they would repent. She also taught Meir resignation when their two sons died. Loving and gentle as she was with Meir, Beruriah could also be arrogant and biting. She ridiculed a Sadducee, derided an erring student, and made a fool of Rabbi Yose the Galilean when he met her on the road.

Finally, she mocked the sages' dictum that women are easily seduced, and she came to a shameful end. Rabbi Meir set one of his students to seduce her. After long denial she yielded to him. When the plot was revealed, she strangled herself, and Rabbi Meir fled to Babylonia because of the disgrace."

"The Virgin in the Brothel and Other Anomalies: Character and Context in the Legend of Beruriah" by Rabbi Rachel Adler, Tikkun Vol. 3, No. 6



So what do we think of Beruriah?

Adler writes: "Beruriah's story is thus imbued with profound ambivalence. On the positive side are Beruriah's brilliance, her special usefulness as a woman who vindicates rabbinic Judaism, and the uniquely appealing depictions of her relationship with her husband. On the negative side, Beruriah is viewed as a threat, a competitor, an arrogant woman contemptuous of men and of rabbinic tradition. This negative pole of the rabbinic attitude toward Beruriah, which culminates in a the tale of her adultery and suicide, is filled with malignant power. It so pervades the legend retroactively that we cannot mention Beruriah's intelligence or accomplishments without adding, if only mentally, 'But she came to a bad end.' This mental reservation brings the iron barrs of the rabbinic context crashing down upon the anomalous woman, indeed upon all women." (pg. 29)


Do we reconstruct Beruriah's story? Highlight certain points, not others? Argue against Rashi's damning story? We have the power...what do we do with this character Beruriah?