Sunday 22 January 2017


[NOTE TO READER: Because the ‘Beruria Episode’ is recorded in rather graphic detail - which is beyond the scope of this forum - we will tone down the various versions of events and use euphemisms as far as possible.]


Beruria is known to many as the Eishet Chayil[1] or loyal and scholarly wife of the great Tanna, R. Meir, who lived during the 2nd Century. Beruria was also referred to as a Tanna, a title used to describe the Sages of the Mishna period (0-200 CE). It was very unusual to have such a title conferred upon a woman, and it is indicative of the great esteem in which she was held. Beruria was the daughter of R. Chananya ben Teradyon, one of the famed Ten Martyrs.

Her husband, R. Meir, was one of the greatest Sages of the Mishnaic period. Also known as R. Meir Baal haNes, his father was a descendant of Roman Emperor Nero (d. 68), who, according to Jewish tradition, had converted to Judaism. He is the third most frequently mentioned Sage in the Mishna, and every anonymous Mishnaic teaching is ascribed to him.[2] Out of the twenty-four thousand students of R. Akiva, R. Meir was one of only five survivors, along with R. Shimon bar Yochai.


Considered such an iconic, revered and scholarly couple, the following Talmudic extract comes as a complete surprise:

The Gemara in Avoda Zara 18b reads as follows:

R. Meir arose, fled, and came to Babylonia. There are those who say this was due to this incident[3], and others who say it was due to the Incident of Beruria.”

Rashi explains the ‘Ma’aseh deBeruria’ or ‘Incident of Beruria’ as follows:

One time she (Beruria) mocked the sages who had said that ‘women are light-minded’.
He (R. Meir, got annoyed and) responded: ‘By your life! You will eventually concede to (the accuracy) of their words.
He instructed one of his students to seduce her.
He (the student) tried for many days until she consented.
When the matter (of the set up) became known to her, she strangled herself.
And R. Meir fled (to Babylonia) because of the disgrace.”



Needless to say, this is a shocking tale by any account. Yet, even though its source is as rabbinically authoritative as can be - a Rashi on a Talmudic tractate – there are many who still refuse to accept it.

The fact is that up until the 20th Century there is no written record of anyone disputing the authenticity of this Rashi text. It is significant to note though, that only in the last hundred years or so have people begun to question this text.  One wonders how we were able to accept the text for nine hundred years from the time of Rashi (1040-1105), yet only recently come to regard it as objectionable.


Itamar Drori has written a well-researched article entitled the ‘Beruria Incident’[4] and I would like to share some of his findings:

He leaves open the possibility for some ‘text tampering’ by suggesting:

If the story was conceived by a political or ideological enemy (such as a Christian or Cuthian) for the purpose of slandering R. Meir and Beruriah, this would have been after Beruriah died and R. Meir fled, since both actions are described in the story.”

But he does point out that:

The temptation to ‘correct’ the situation, and present the Beruriah incident as foreign to Jewish culture, led to a disregard of the centrality of Rashi’s commentary, which was...already considered an integral part of Talmudic reading...’

This makes it very difficult to question an established Rashi text.

Yet many did.

A theory put forward by those who refuse to accept this Rashi, is that the first printed version of this text (Rashi on Tractate Avodah Zara) was only produced in Venice in 1520. This leaves room for someone with a dubious agenda, to have inserted it during the four hundred year interval when only manuscripts existed.[5]


Some have quoted world folklore tales that exhibit a degree of similarity to the Beruria narrative. For example, the story of ‘The Curious Impertinent’ - where the husband tries to prove his wife’s loyalty to him and asks a friend to test her in a similar manner.[6]

Then there is the Armean story of the Sultan whose extraordinary loyal wife believed all men were essentially immoral. This annoyed her husband who arranged to have his servant test his wife by seducing her, which he did.[7]

There are many other similar stories too and the theory is that these popular tales were somehow transposed to the Rashi text and also became part of our popular culture.


There is also the suggestion that this ‘rumor’ of R. Meir and Beruria was only written down well after the Talmud was redacted in the 6th Century. Although we have no textual evidence of this (as the Rashi text is the earliest written account we have), the theory is that no stories about any Tanaim had been written down during the Mishnaic period because, according to the Rosh, it was only permitted to start writing down Oral Law after the final redaction of the Talmud in the 500’s. See KOTZK BLOG 84. 

This would have been about 300 years after the alleged incident took place. During this time indiscretions may have crept in, and Rashi built on those inaccuracies, many centuries later, in the 1100’s.


Others, like Shalshelet haKabalah[8], accept the basic text but say that in actual fact it was not the student who entered the room but R. Meir himself (disguised as a student?).

According to Ben Yehoyada[9] it was indeed the student but he was a eunuch.

Another version also has it that it was the student, except that it was arranged that R. Meir would hide, to ensure that no contact took place.

A further interpretation is that Rashi merely says that ‘she consented’- not that anything came of the consent.


Another individual who researched the ‘Bruria Incident’ was David Goodblat, who published ‘the Beruriah Traditions’. He points out that the name Beruria is mentioned seven times in early rabbinic literature[10]

Of those seven references, two describe her as both the daughter of Chananya ben Tradyon and the wife of R. Meir. Another one describes her only as the wife of R. Meir. And the last four describe her, independently, without any familial connections. 

Six of the seven references to Beruria are to be found in the Babylonian Talmud, which was written in Aramaic, and one in the Tosefta which was written in Hebrew.

Goodblat mentions that; “all of the anecdotes which portray Beruriah as possessing an advanced education are of Babylonian Amoraic origin.” Thus, he argues that Beruria the scholar was more indicative of the (Aramaic) Gemora period than the (Hebrew) Mishnaic period.

He suggests that a ‘merging of personalities’ took place which created the Beruria of our story out of possibly three other characters – the daughter of Chanania ben Tradyon, the wife of R. Meir and an independent scholarly woman.

According to this view, the accuracy and historicity of Rashi’s account of R. Meir and Beruria being married to each other would be questionable.


On the other hand, Drori also quotes Maharatz Chayes (1805-1855), the only commentator in the Vilna Shas edition with a PhD, who said:

“...all stories which were disrespectful toward any of the rabbis of the Talmud were omitted...the incident of only alluded to in the Talmud...and Rashi there explains the occurrence according to that which he heard passed from one person to another orally, but was omitted from the Talmud.”

According to Maharatz Chayes, Rashi is filling in what the Talmud censored out, and he based himself on an established oral tradition.


But this was not the only time R. Meir was associated with an incident of this nature.
The Gemara in Kiddushin records:

R. Meir used to scoff at those who gave in to their desires. One day, Satan appeared to him in the guise of a beautiful woman on the opposite side of the river. There was no ferry so R. Meir took hold of a rope and proceeded across. When he got halfway, Satan left him (due to heavenly intervention)...”[11]


The ‘woman of valour’ image of Beruria is challenged by the following texts:

Rabbi Yosi the Galilean was going along the road. He met Beruria. He said to her, ‘by which way do we go to Lod?’ She responded, ‘Galilean fool! Did not the sages say that one must not converse too much with women? You should have asked, - by which to Lod?’”[12]

Beruria found a certain disciple who was reviewing his lessons in a whisper. She kicked him...(and said that one needs to use all one energies to preserve the Torah.)[13]

Another Gemara records how both Beruria the wife or R Meir, and Michal the daughter of Saul would wear tefillin, and the rabbis did not object to it.

The Ari Zal (1534-1572) explained that according to mystical tradition, the reason why Beruria wore tefillin was because her soul was rooted in alma d’duchra (the masculine world)[14].
(Could this insight not perhaps enlighten us as to why R. Meir and Beruria had such a complicated relationship?)
Another case involved a Talmudic dispute between Beruria and her brother, R. Shimon ben Teradyon. The case was judged on its merits and the verdict was pronounced: “R. Chanina’s daughter Beruria is a greater scholar than his son R. Shimon!

These texts indicate that R. Meir and Beruria were most certainly not an average or mundane couple. They were both professionally erudite and sometimes quite caustic and unconventional.


The difficulty with the ‘yes but’ theories is even if all these were to be correct, they add very little morality to redeeming the same basic tenor of a shocking story, that few can be comfortable with.

The difficulty with all the ‘text tampering’ theories, of course, is that one can’t pick and choose which primary texts we want to consider as authentic and which not. It becomes too much of a slippery slope because the same reasoning can be directed against other texts that deal not just with stories but with Halacha.

Unless there is absolute and compelling evidence without the shadow of a doubt, that a text was tampered with or manipulated, it is very dangerous if not devious, to suggest otherwise.

Personally, I find it fascinating how, when faced with such a challenging text, some who would never usually question a printed Rashi on the Talmud, are quick to do so in this particular instance.

Respect for Mesora (tradition as we have it) is sacrosanct. So much so that, according to the Chazon Ish, even were Moshe Rabbenu’s original Torah to be discovered today and found to be (slightly) different from ours, we would consider his Torah to be pasul (invalid) and our version to be kosher.  See KOTZK BLOG 82.

On the other hand, those who usually do not hesitate to question the historical accuracy of some Talmudic texts, are in this instance, quick to assume this text is authoritative.

Objectively, it’s difficult to know which of the views and theories are the most compelling. Subjectively though, each reader will form his or her own conclusion.

One thing is certain though - the ‘Beruria Incident’ provokes us to soul search the story, and forces us to form our own opinion one way or the other.


The Beruria Incident: Tradition of Exclusion as a Presence of Ethical Principles, by Itamar Drori.

‘The Beruriah Traditions’, by David Goldblatt JJS 26 (1975)

[1] In Avodah Zara 18b, R. Chanina declared Beruria to be the exemplary ‘Woman of valour, who can find?’ (Proverbs 31:10), after the manner in which she comforted her husband on the sudden death of their two sons, who both died on the Sabbath. She waited for him to arrive home, make Havdala and then asked whether an object held in trust must be returned to its owner. When he responded in the affirmative, she led him to the room where the boys lay and said; ‘G-d gave and G-d has taken away’ (Job 1:21).
[2] Gittin 4a. Some say his real name was Misha or Nahori but he assumed the title Meir which means ‘enlightener’.
[3] This ‘incident’ is also recorded in the Talmud, Avodah Zara 18a. Paraphrase follows:
Beruria said to her husband: ‘It is a disgrace that my sister sits in a house of ill repute (which is where she was taken as captive by the Romans)’. R. Meir immediately went to Rome with money and said: ‘If no forbidden thing was done to her, a miracle will occur’. He dressed as a horseman and located his sister-in-law, but she did not recognise him. She said that the way of women was upon her and that there were other more beautiful women there. He said he specifically wanted her. She declined. He then knew that this was her response to all who came.
He bribed the guard with his money to help them escape. The guard became fearful that he would be found out. R. Meir told him to say ‘G-d of Meir answer me.’ R. Meir showed how that expression could save him from man-eating hounds that were present. The guard was convinced and allowed them to escape.
Eventually the guard got arrested. He uttered the formula given to him by R.Meir and indeed was spared.
The Romans carved an image of R. Meir on all the gates of Rome and he became a wanted man.
One day they found him and gave chase. He ran into another place of ill repute, saw some non-kosher food there and pretended to eat it. The Romans let him go because they said: ‘If that were R. Meir, he would never have done that’.  For this reason he had to flee; - Others say he had to flee because of the ‘Beruria Incident’.
[4] The Beruria Incident: Tradition of Exclusion as a Presence of Ethical Principles, by Itamar Drori.
[5] According to Rav Aviner: “...early editions of Rashi do not contain this incident.  Perhaps a mistaken student put it in (Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv also explains that this incident never happened. Divrei Yaakov of Ha-Rav Yaakov Adas on the Teshuvot of Ha-Rav Elyashiv, p. 263).” I have been unable to find the earlier editions with this Rashi text removed. Please will someone point it out to me as I would love to post the reference because this would make for a very compelling argument. According to Drori: “The earliest known version of the Beruriah Incident appears in MS Parma Palatina 3155 (De Rossi 1292), the only manuscript containing Rashi’s full commentary of bAvodah Zarah.” (Emphasis mine). This manuscript became the basis for our printed Talmud texts today, which do record this Rashi. 
[6] See Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
[7] See The History of the Forty Vezirs
[8] II, p. 32
[9] Ben Yehoyada, by Yosef Haim of Baghdad, IV, Avodah Zarah, p. 175.
[10] 6 are in the Talmud Bavli and one in the Tosefta.
[11] Kiddushin 81a
[12] Eruvin 53b; BeEizeo derech nelech leLod? should rather have been shortened to BeEizeh leLod?
[13] Eruvin 53b, 54a
[14] In kabbalistic literature a ‘male’ or ‘female’ soul is not necessarily gender related. For example, a person who ‘gives’ or teaches is said to have a ‘masculine’ soul, whereas on who receives or learns is said to have a ‘feminine’ soul. 

1 comment:

  1. As far as I understand, the main reason to question the account of Rashi is that we have many midrashim written in the hundreds of years between when the incident with Berurya occurred and the time of Rashi, and not one of them record the incident. That alone is grounds for questioning the historicity of it.