We just finished Sefer Breishit and said Chazak chazak v’nitchazek — these words have special resonance for me today as I mark my completion of Seder Nashim.
Nashim of course means women, but the connection between Seder Nashim and women is not necessarily obvious. The Seder consists of seven tractates – Yevamot (which deals with levirate marriage, that is, the plight of a woman whose husband dies leaving no heir), Ketubot (which deals with marriage contracts and the rules and regulations governing married life), Nedarim (about vows), Nazir (about the Nazir, the individual consecrates himself to God for a period of time), Sotah (about a woman suspected of adultery), Gittin (about bills of divorce) and Kiddushin (about the laws of betrothal). Five of these tractates deal with marriage and its dissolution, that is, the laws governing male-female relationships. But this does not explain Nedarim and Nazir. One possible explanation for the name Nashim is to be found in the Cambridge manuscript of Seder Nashim, which calls the first tractate of this Seder by the name Nashim (rather than Yevamot), since it begins with the phrase חמש עשרה נשים. If so, then the name Nashim may be as relevant to the actual content of the material it encompasses as the name Chayey Sarah is relevant to the content of that parsha — that is, not very relevant at all.
To better understand the connection between the content of Seder Nashim and women, I thought I might look at how women are portrayed in this Seder. Here, though, I found two very different pictures, depending on whether I focused on the realm of halacha or aggadah. When it comes to the halachot of this tractate –which treats such questions as Which women are exempt from levirate marriage? How is a woman acquired by a man? May a woman deliver her own Get? When can a husband nullify his wife’s vow?, among many others– we find ourselves presented with a view of how men want social relations to work. In fact, I have heard that Nedarim is generally considered to be part of Seder Nashim because so much of it deals with the way women attempt to control men through their vows, and the way in which men respond by annulling them. In the normative world of the halachot of this Seder, we are confronted with a legal and social system created by men to control and domesticate women. But if halacha is the world as the rabbis thought it should be, then its counterpart, aggadah, gives us a glimpse of the rabbis’ world as it actually was – filtered, of course, through the ever-delightful, ever-surprising rabbinic imagination. Here, the picture that emerges is startlingly different.
In the world of the Aggadah, we meet the women who carried their baskets of fish through the marketplaces where the rabbis shopped, tended the fires where they warmed their feet in the evening, and showed up in the rabbinic courts with claims against their neighbors. In the richly-imagined aggadot of Seder Nashim, we meet a young girl who, while sitting on her father’s lap, announces to him who she wants to marry; and a woman who defiles herself during her period of Nezirut when she learns that her daughter has died; and a woman who comes before the greatest sage of her day to complain about the way in which her husband has intercourse with her. And then there are the women who are mentioned by name. With the help of Tal Ilan’s book Mine and Yours are Hers, I counted twenty women in total who are mentioned by name in the aggadot of this Seder. In the hope of becoming better acquainted with the women of Seder Nashim, I have divided these women into four categories. Today I’d like to quickly run through each of the four categories –Dutiful wife, Aristocrat, Seductress, and Fabricated, Fantasy Woman– and present one woman from each category through a story in which she is featured.
First, the Dutiful Wife. The most obvious example of this category is Rabbi Akiva’s wife Rachel, discussed in both Ketubot (62b) and Nedarim (50a). She is the daughter of a wealthy man who marries the poor Akiva and allows him to leave her for 24 years to study Torah, a quality that the rabbis regard as praiseworthy. But in neither of these sugyot is Rachel mentioned by name, so I will focus instead on another figure, Imma Shalom, the wife of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.
In Nedarim 20a-b, amidst an extended discussion of the techniques of married sex between a man and his wife, a group of students ask Imma Shalom, “How is it that your sons are so exceedingly handsome?” She responds, “He does not make love to me at the beginning of the night or at the end of the night, and when he does, he uncovers one portion and covers another portion and appears as though possessed by demons.” The word used for “make love” here is מספר, which conjures the image of Rabbi Eliezer whispering in his wife’s ear during their cohabitation. Imma Shalom does not seem to have any problem with the fact that her husband sleeps with her while she is covered by a sheet — she is quite obliging about the whole matter. When she asks Rabbi Eliezer why he acts in this manner, he tells her, “So that I do not lay my eyes on another woman.” Imma Shalom serves, in this sugya, as a source for information on rabbinic sexual practices; though as the continuation of this sugya shows, these practices were probably not normative. Still, it is interesting that a woman was not afraid to speak openly about such intimate matters, and seems to do so with a degree of pride and self-assuredness.
The next category I would like to consider is the aristocratic woman, namely the case of Marta bat Baytos, who is introduced in Masechet Yevamot as the wife of the High Priest Joshua ben Gamla. The most extended treatment of Marta bat Baytos appears in Gittin 56a, which she is portrayed as a heartless millionairess of the period prior to the destruction of the Temple. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, when provisions were scarce, she insists that her messenger bring her the choicest flour. But nothing he brings her satisfies her highly refined tastes, and so Marta decide to set out on her own in search of food. When she walks out, a piece of dung sticks to her heel and she dies instantly.
Marta bat Baytos is what we might call a priss; she cannot handle the sight of anything unrefined or undignified or beneath her station. I personally invoke her name any time I don’t want to walk in the mud because I am wearing good shoes, or any time I step in dog poop (which happens quite often on the sidewalks of Jerusalem to those of us who read while walking). At these moments, I find myself reciting the verse that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai recited about Marta bat Baytos: “The most tender and delicately bred woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her food upon the ground” (Deut. 28:56).
Next, the woman as seductress. Here I briefly consider two examples, Cheruta and Choma. Cheruta is the infamous whore of Babylon, known to be sexually irresistible. In Kidushin 81b she is invoked by the wife of Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi, who is frustrated that her husband has not slept with her for several years. This is presumably his attempt to become more pious, yet each day he prostrates himself and cries, “May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse.” Chiya bar Ashi’s wife has had it with her husband’s tortured piety, so one day she dresses up like Cheruta and seduces her husband in the garden. Her husband succumbs, and then, wracked by guilt, walks in the door of the house and climbs into the burning hot oven, where he will not be consoled. Although Cheruta herself does not figure in this story, it is clear that she exerted a powerful hold over the imagination of both men and women in the Talmud’s world; it is not surprising that her name, from Cherut, suggests total sexual freedom and licentiousness.
The other seductress whom I find too irresistible to omit from this discussion is Choma, the widow of Abayey, who insists that the court grant the allotment of wine that she feels is due to her upon her husband’s death. Instead of elaborating on this story here, I will simply read a sonnet that I wrote about the sugya in which she figures, Ketubot 65a.
Sonnet: Ketubot 65a
Abayey’s wife, named Choma, came to court
She barked, “Dole out my food!” So Rava did.
She then said, “Next my wine – now be a sport.”
Fair Rava said, “I can’t do as you bid.”
“But hubby dear served wine in glasses tall!
How tall, you ask? I’ll show you.” Choma raised
Her hands above her head; her sleeves did fall
Revealing shoulders bright. So Rava gazed.
Quick, quick ran Rava home, his loins aflame
And laid his wife to bed. She gasped: “Explain!
Who was in court?” “Er…Choma was her name.”
His wife’s eyes flashed in envy, rage, disdain.
So Rava’s wife beat Choma to the ground:
“You’ve killed three men,” she screamed. “Now leave this town!”
Choma is an example of an Isha Katlanit, a deadly woman – that is, a woman who has been married to a series of men all of whom have died in her lifetime. This is what Rava’s wife alludes to when she cries out, “You’ve killed three men!” This sugya suggests that for all that Abayey and Rava may have been Bar Plugta, any debate in the domesticated world of the Beit Midrash would have surely paled in comparison to this vicious confrontation between their wives….
Finally, the fabricated, fantasy woman. Here I am referring to midrashim about women’s names, in which the name of the woman is the very essence of the story in which she is mentioned. The classic example in Seder Nashim (in Nedarim 66b) is that of Lichluchit, a woman who husband says to her, “I vow that I will not enjoy sexual relations with you unless you can show me one fair aspect of your physical appearance.” The case is brought before the sage Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yose, who tries to find a way of forfeiting the man’s vow. He asks, “Perhaps her head is fair?” But he tells her it is round. “Perhaps her hair is fair?” It resembles stalks of flax. “Perhaps her stomach is fair?” It sags. And on and on. In the end, the rabbi says to the husband, “Perhaps her name is fair?” and the husband responds that her name is Lichluchit, which means “filthy” or “soiled” (and is the modern Hebrew name for Cinderella). The sage rules, “It is fair that she is called Lichluchit since she is filthy in every aspect.” And thus the vow is forfeited, and the woman is permitted to her husband. This sugya reminds me of Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun,” which ends with the speaker declaring that although his mistress is flawed in all her features, she is redeemed by the fact that at least she is described accurately: “And yet by heaven,” reads the sonnet, in the language not of a Neder but a Shvua, “I think my love more rare / as any she belied with false compare.”
In dividing these women into four categories, I aim to create some sort of typology of the women of the Talmud, though of course this classification system is by no means exhaustive. So often, when the Talmud teaches one thing, it then goes on to teach its opposite; and thus no statement and no classification system can exist independent of the larger matrix of the corpus it represents. I think this point is well illustrated by referencing the Tosefta at the end of Kidushin, the last Masechet I learned and the one with which I will conclude my siyum in a few moments. The rabbis state on the final daf of Seder Nashim, “It is impossible to have a world without both males and females, but blessed is the one whose sons are male and woe to the one whose sons are female.” The Tosefta discusses Avraham, who, as we know from Sefer Breishit which we also concluded this morning, had two sons: “And thus we see with Avraham our Father, whom God blessed in his old age more than in his youth, as it is written, ‘And Avraham was old, coming on in years, and God blessed Avraham with everything [Bakol].'” The rabbis go on to discuss what is meant by “with everything” — what was the nature of Avraham’s blessing? Rabbi Meir says, “That he did not have a daughter.” Several other opinions are offered. The final opinion, cited anonymously, is: “Avraham had a daughter and her name was Bakol.” This is Talmudic subversiveness at its best — הפוך בה והפוך בה, and Avraham’s blessing becomes not his lack of sons but his daughter whose name was Bakol.
From here we move to the final sugya of the masechet, which is about the value of learning Torah, an activity which is declared as being preferable to all professions and trades. Here too, we hear echoes of Sefer Breishit – specifically of God’s curse to Adam that he shall have to make his living by the sweat of his brow. I will read this final sugya through, as is traditional in a siyum, and then recite a sonnet on it:
Sonnet: Kidushin 82b
Shimon ben Elazar said: “No such thing
Is there as deer that take out figs to dry
No heavy burden bears the lion king
No cunning fox sells goods for men to buy.
Nay, only man doth plow and till and hoe
And work from dawn to dusk just to afford
His food. Though beasts serve man, they do not know
Of toil. Why must man, who serves the Lord?
For labor is man’s punishment for sin.”
Nehorai thought, “Well, that’s a rotten lot.
I’d give up every job, I’d trade it in
And train my son in Torah. Heck, why not?
A job may suit a young man when he’s spry;
But Torah gives old men the wings to fly.”
I feel fortunate to have a profession that enables me to study Torah, and a community that supports me in this pursuit. May Torah be a source of strength for all of us – Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.