Heleni HaMalka (Yoma 37b)

Rehov Heleni HaMalka is one of those narrow cobblestone streets winding up from Rehov Yaffo into the Russian Compound. Until last week, I had five associations with Heleni HaMalka: a Café Hillel, two popular nightclubs, a French-style restaurant called Bistro, and the imposing castle that houses the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, enclosing a Renaissance-style courtyard. Now, thanks to the tenth mishnah in the third perek of Yoma, I have a deeper understanding of Heleni herself:

Heleni HaMalka made a menorah of gold at the entrance to the heychal, and she also made a tablet of gold on which parshat Sotah was written.

The Gemara (Yoma 37b) mentions Heleni amidst a list of all those righteous people who brought significant gifts to the Temple. Heleni, a queen in a kingdom north of Syria in the time of David, converted to Judaism after learning Torah from Jews who passed through her kingdom. Heleni herself visited Jerusalem on several occasions and brought gifts to the Temple, includng the menorah and the Sotah tablet.

The Gemara explains the purpose of these objects, both of which Heleni made herself. The menorah at the entrance to the heychal would deflect the rays of the rising sun each morning, sending out sparks of light all over Jerusalem. These sparks served to notify the inhabitants of the city that it was time for the morning recitation of the Shma.

Heleni’s other contribution, the tablet containing Parshat Sotah, was used by the Kohen Gadol whenever a woman suspected of adultery (a Sotah) was brought to the Temple by her jealous husband. The Kohen Gadol would write the part of the Torah containing the laws of the Sotah (Numbers 5) onto a piece of paper, which he would then dissolve in the waters of bitterness. And the woman, whose hair was disheveled by the Kohen Gadol, was then forced to drink this water in a test of her loyalty to her husband. If she had not betrayed him, then she would become pregnant after drinking the water; but if she was indeed guilty, then her belly would distend and her thigh would sag and she would become “a curse and an imprecation” among the people of Israel. The Sotah’s fate, then, was determined by the way her body responded to the drinking of the bitter waters containing the words from Heleni’s tablet.

So Heleni, one of the few women mentioned in the Talmud as an agent in her own right, was responsible for telling the people when to say Shma and for ensuring that the Sotah ritual was carried out properly. I find both of these roles intriguing. Even though the recitation of Shma is considered a positive time-bound commandment–one of those mitzvoth from which women are traditionally exempt–it was actually a woman’s contribution that ensured that the mitzvah was performed at the right time of day. And the instructions for the Sotah ritual, in which the men (both the priest and the husband) always take the active role while the hapless wife is forced to passively comply, were written out on a tablet donated by a woman–as if to say that not everything is part of a patriarchal master plan.

The Talmud seems to share my sense of surprise and intrigue at Heleni’s contributions, as revealed by the use of the word “af”: “Heleni imo asta nivreshet shel zahav al petach heychal…v’AF hi asta tavla shel zahav….” The rhetorical effect is something like, “Heleni made a menorah… and lo, she even made a tablet of gold!” The same word, “af,” appears in Masechet Megillah (and elsewhere), where we are told that women are obligated in the mitzvah of hearing the megillah “Ki’AF hen hayu b’oto ha-nes” – “for lo, even they were involved in that same miracle [of the Purim story]” (REF TK AND CHECK IS THAT RIGHT?). This language suggests that we might have thought otherwise. You think women don’t have to hear megillah? Well actually, it is a queen named Esther who is the heroine of the story! And you think a woman wouldn’t have made a menorah to announce the time of Shma? Well actually, Queen Heleni made something even more surprising as well!

As far as I know, there is no gold on Rehov Heleni HaMalka. But the next time I sit at Café Hillel sipping coffee in the early morning, I will look out for the rays of the sun sending out sparks of light into the Jerusalem sky.

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