For the past few weeks I have been composing in my head an extended poem on the pleasures of sleeping alone. Chief among them is the delight I take in reading in bed – at the beginning of the night, when I can fall asleep with my bedside lamp still on, my book eventually collapsing to form a tent over my face; at 3am, when the house is quiet and the world is calm, and I wake up delighted to have those stolen mid-night moments to my conscious self; and in the early morning hours, when I arise before my alarm clock and read by the light streaming through my open window. I have books that I will read only in bed; they live under the blankets and wait patiently while I read far more respectable volumes during daylight hours. Writing in bed, too, is another newly-rediscovered pleasure. There are entries in my journal that I am able to write only when alone under the covers, as if I cannot expose these negatives to the harsh light of day. A friend recently told me that she loves being single because her nightlife is so much more wild, and I could relate; it was only when I began sleeping alone that my wild literary nightlife took off.
I suspect that the women of the Talmud would not have been able to relate to the pleasure I take in sleeping solo. I don’t know much about how the rabbis’ wives spent their nights, but I’m quite certain that they weren’t reading in bed. We hear in Masechet Sotah (6b, 31a) and again in Gittin (89a) about women who would spin flax and gossip by the moonlight, which seems to have been a popular evening activity. The Talmud states that the topic of conversation among these women served as an indicator of what had become public knowledge in a community. More specifically, each of these sugyot teaches that a woman’s adulterous affair would be regarded as a known matter only when it became the subject of gossip among these tale-spinning women. Presumably those women who were gossiping about adultery rather than committing it then returned home to their husbands’ beds, and it was only the most forlorn among them who were left to sleep alone.
The Talmud clearly looks pitifully upon any woman who does not have a man with whom to share her bed. We know this from a popular folk saying attributed to Reish Lakish that appears five times throughout the Babylonian Talmud (and never in the Yerushalmi):
טב למיתב טן דו מלמיתב ארמלו
The phrase literally means, “It is better for a woman to sit as two [tan du] than to sit alone by herself,” though it takes on far more color in its various Talmudic contexts. In Bava Kama 110b, where I most recently encountered it, the phrase appears in a discussion of the case of a woman whose husband dies, and whose brother-in-law suffers from an unpleasant skin ailment. Is the woman obligated to formally release herself from levirate marriage to her brother-in-law? Perhaps she need not bother, because surely she would not have married her husband if she had known that there was any chance she’d end up with his ailing brother. But the Talmud rejects this supposition on the grounds of טב למיתב . A woman would marry a man even if his brother is repulsive because she would so much rather get married than remain alone.
In Masechet Kidushin, this expression is invoked on two occasions to explain the lengths to which a woman would go so as not to be alone. In the first instance (7a), the Talmud deals with the question of whether a woman can become betrothed to a man not by receiving money from him, but rather by giving him a present. That is, can she be betrothed by means of the benefit that she derives from the knowledge that he is receiving her gift? The sugya comes to the conclusion that ניחא לה בכל דהו, “it is better for her in any case” to be married than unmarried, and thus she is willing to betroth herself by giving rather than receiving a gift. Although Kidushin is generally defined as a transaction in which the man gives the woman something and she in return becomes betrothed unto him, the Talmud suggests in this sugya that a woman so desperately wants to be married that she’ll actually give the man a gift rather than receive one, just so that she can become his wife.
The phrase טב למיתב occurs again on Kidushin 41a amidst a discussion of whether Kidushin can be performed by means of a messenger. Can a man send a third party to betroth his wife for him? The Talmud responds that a man must first see his wife before bethrothing her, “lest he see something unattractive in her after they get married and she become repulsive to him.” A husband should not send a messenger to choose a wife for him; it is important that he see the woman so that he can know whether she finds favor in his eyes. The Talmud then asks whether the same logic applies to a woman. Should a woman, too, avoid accepting a proposal by means of a third party messenger? No! A woman, unlike a man, may rely on a messenger, because of טב למיתב . A woman has such a vested interest in getting married that even if she has not yet seen her suitor, we can assume she will accept him. Here the Talmud suggests that women are far less picky than men when it comes to choosing a spouse because a woman above all wants a husband, regardless of who that husband might be.
After reviewing each of these three sugyot, I cannot help but wonder: Why all the fuss about getting married? Was the Talmudic woman’s life really so much better if she had a husband? The remaining two טב למיתב sugyot suggest an answer to this question that is not quite as simple as it first appears. These two sugyot, Ketubot 75a and Yevamot 118b, closely parallel one another, and thus I cite only the former here. The rabbis are discussing a man who betroths a wife on the condition that she does not have a particular blemish, and then discovers that she has that blemish; does the betrothal still take? The answer is no, even if she goes to a doctor and has the offensive mark removed. However, in the opposite case, a woman who makes such a conditional statement is indeed still betrothed on the grounds of טב למיתב . A woman desires to be married to such an extent that we can assume she will overlook those very blemishes that she had initially stipulated that she would not tolerate. This assertion triggers (both in Ketubot and Yevamot) a flurry of colorful comments attributed to various Talmudic sages about just how strongly a woman desires a husband:
Abayey: Even if her husband is the size of a sesame seed (!), she is proud to place her chair among the free women.
Rav Papa: Even if her husband spins wool [a lowly profession] she will call out to him to come sit with her at the entrance to the home (where they will be publicly visible).
Rav Ashi: Even if her husband is repulsive, at least she will not lack for lentils in her pot.
Each of these sages asserts that a woman wishes to have a husband, even a repulsive one, because of the status that is conferred upon her by being married. Were the sugya to end there, the Talmud’s stance would be unequivocal: Better for a woman to be married than to be alone. Were Abayey, Rav Papa, and Rav Ashi to have the last word, then I might offer different advice the next time a friend comes to me and asks whether she should marry the man she is currently dating. I might even consider pulling those novels out from under my covers and replacing them with a husband of my own. Fortunately, however, the Talmud has more to say on this matter. The final line of this sugya is introduced by the word Tanna, suggesting that this last source predates (and is therefore assumed to carry more authority than) those Amoraic statements that precede it. This source asserts, “And all these women commit adultery and attribute their offspring to their husbands.” That is, all these women who so desperately want to be married are really just interested in having a convenient excuse when they find themselves pregnant as a result of their adulterous affairs. Why do they need husbands? So that they can point to a legitimate father for their bastard children!
This final line, astonishing in its flippancy and subversiveness, casts the preceding Amoraic statements in a new light: A woman needs a husband so that she can “place her chair among the free women,” that is, so that she can count herself among those women who are free to have adulterous affairs! And even if her husband is repulsive, she doesn’t care, because she’s just using him as a cover so that she can gallivant off and engage in extramarital sex! For this reason it is better for a woman to be married than to be alone. This reason, though, gives me pause. Personally, I must confess that I prefer the pleasure of reading alone in bed to the prospect of extramarital affairs. And while it might be fun to set off in search of a husband, the literature I read tends to be far more exciting than the life I might otherwise lead…..
I was reminded of these sugyot this past Purim, when a good friend brought me Mishloach Manot in the form of a beautiful glass vase stuffed with hamentaschen and other goodies. “When you finish all the sweets,” she told me, “you can save the vase for the next time a man brings you flowers.” I smiled, knowing that I would do no such thing. Instead, I washed out the giant vase, filled it with two kilos of lentils, and placed it in my cupboard alongside my beans, split peas, and other dried goods. I put a sign on the vase that contains four words from the Ketubot/Yevamot sugya: לא בעי טלפחי לקדרא – “she does not lack for lentils in her pot.” From time to time I cook lentil soup, which I have served to numerous male friends over the course of this past winter. I am married to none of them, nor would I want to be.