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“The Wise Woman from Saida”: The Silent Dialogue between Aggadah and Halakhah Regarding Women and Marriage

  • Arnon Atzmon (a1)


A central concern in the study of gender in Judaism is the status of women and the relationship between partners in a marriage. In this article I explore a concealed dialogue, or perhaps more accurately, a dialogue that has been condemned to silence, on that subject.


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1. Hauptman, Judith, “Maternal Dissent: Women and Procreation in the Mishna,” Tikkun 6, no. 6 (1991): 8182, 94; idem, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 130–46.

2. Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis, 133–34, writes: “The Tosefta then adds that men and women are obligated to marry and forbidden to make themselves sterile or choose a spouse who is known to be incapable of procreation … the Tosefta, throughout its discussion of this topic, holds that women, too, are obligated to procreate.” I think that Hauptman's claim regarding the Tosefta's attitude toward women and marriage should be revisited, for not only does the Tosefta imply that women are also obligated to procreate, but also that marriage has value in and of itself (“A man may not live without a woman nor may a woman live without a man” [T. Yevamot 8:4]). This notwithstanding, the Tosefta does concur that if the marriage is childless, the couple should divorce so that both spouses (the husband, and the wife as well) may have children.

3. Whether or not the husband must divorce his wife according to the Mishnah has been the focus of some debate. Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis, 131, has suggested that the Mishnah is most likely instructing the man to have children with another woman either through divorcing this wife and remarrying or by taking a second wife in addition to his present one. A third putative suggestion, which is that the Mishnah is merely instructing him to keep trying to procreate with his present wife, is somewhat surprising, given that barring some other option of course he would do so. Furthermore, this possible reading is undermined by the next line in the Mishnah, which discusses the woman's status should he divorce her. It should be stressed, however, that whatever the original meaning of the Mishnah, the aggadic sources discussed in this article—such as the talmudic sages—clearly assume that according to the Mishnah the couple should get divorced after ten childless years, so procreation takes priority over the couple's relationship.

4. Satlow, Michael L., “‘One Who Loves His Wife Like Himself’: Love in Rabbinic Marriage,” Journal of Jewish Studies 49, no. 1 (1998): 6787; Boyarin, Daniel, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 5356; Schremer, Adiel, Zakhar u-nekevah bera'am: ha-niśu'im be-shilhe yeme ha-bayit ha-sheni uvi-tekufat ha-mishnah veha-talmud (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar Letoldot Israel, 2003), 312–21; Admiel Kosman, “Ein li hefetz baolam tov mimkha,” Haaretz, May 9, 1997.

5. Shir Hashirim Rabbah, par. 1 to Song of Songs 1:4; Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Sos-'asis, pis. 22:2 (ed. Mandelbaum, 326–28).

6. Cohen, Naḥum, Atarim ve-ḥakhmim ba-golan ve-babashan bi-tekufat ha-mishnah veha-talmud (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2007), 1318.

7. Rubenstein, Jeffrey L., Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 243–82; idem, Bavli Gittin 55b–56b: An Aggadic Narrative in Its Halakhic Context,” Hebrew Studies 38 (1997): 2145.

8. Strack, Hermann L. and Stemberger, Günter, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, trans. Bockmuehl, Markus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) 321–22, 342–43; Lerner, Myron B., “The Works of Aggadic Midrash and the Esther Midrashim,” in The Literature of the Sages, ed. Safrai, Shmuel, Safrai, Zeev, Schwarz, Joshua, Tomson, Peter J. (Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, 2006), II:147–50.

9. The complete texts, in Hebrew and in English translation, are found in the appendix to this article. The English translation of Shir Hashirim Rabbah is based on Boyarin's translation in Carnal Israel, with a few of my own minor modifications. The Hebrew text of Pesikta de-Rav Kahana is that of the Mandelbaum edition (New York: JTS, 1962). The variant readings recorded in Mandelbaum's apparatus are, in my opinion, insignificant since they appear in only one manuscript (א1—Oxford, Bodleian Library, 2339, Cat. Neubauer), which apparently reflects the scribe's attempt to adapt his text to Shir Hashirim Rabbah. The English translation of Pesikta de-Rav Kahana is based on the Braude-Kapstein edition (Philadelphia: JPS, 1975) with a few of my own minor modifications.

10. Sokoloff, Michael, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2002), 536–37.

11. In this, I disagree with other scholars who believe that the party was meant to bring the couple together. In my opinion, this reading is more applicable to the parallel derasha in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana.

12. My understanding of the phrase נתיישבה דעתו as signifying the husband's entering a relaxed state of mind and tranquil mood under the influence of the wine parallel's Simon's translation (p. 49) “feeling then in a good humour,” and Neusner's translation (p. 89) “his mind was at ease.” Boyarin's translation of the phrase as “his sensibility returned to him” is problematic because he understands the phrase to mean that the husband “became sober,” a phenomenon that is actually described later in the story by the phrase פג יינו (see note 13 below).

13. Note that as mentioned above in note 2, even if the Mishnah itself does not demand that the couple divorce, it clearly favors procreation over the couple's relationship. The author of the midrash clearly felt this tension, as indicated by his starting assumption that the couple should divorce.

14. Boyarin (above, note 4) asks: “Why are we told that ‘she got him too drunk,’ and then, ‘when his sensibility returned to him, he said … ?’ … Note that it is impossible to understand this drunkenness as that which resulted in his being so sleepy that he didn't detect that he was being first carried off, because that sleep takes place after he has recovered from his drunkenness.” Then he suggests: “That the story delicately hints that they made love while he was drunk, and that during intercourse they realized that they loved each other too much to allow the halakhah to separate them” (54). As explained in note 12, in my opinion, not only does the phrase נתיישבה דעתו not mean the same thing as פג יינו, but it actually means that he was influenced by the wine he drank. Boyarin also writes, “Moreover, this seems to have been the Rabbi's plan,” as implied by the sexual connotation of the term נזדווגתם (55. Again, in my opinion this conclusion is open to dispute, since Rashbi's instruction may best be understood within the rubric of the halakhic norm, as I explained above. Aside from these details, I tend to agree with the basic thrust of Boyarin's analysis that “This legend may encode a moment of tension between a voice for which procreation was perceived as the sole or the overridingly important telos of marriage and one for which companionship was becoming increasingly important” (55). However, in my analysis, that tension does not negate the fundamental halakhic norm expressed by the Mishnah; it merely gives rise to the conclusion that the norm should not be implemented in a sweeping or forceful way.

Satlow also referred to the story's ambivalence regarding the halakhah's demand that the couple divorce. In his analysis, the feast was meant to “reawaken the woman's desire for her husband, and it is this desire that ultimately leads to her conceiving.” He notes that “in this understanding of the story, the purpose of a wife's desire for her husband is not to maintain a ‘good’ marriage but to increase procreation. Ultimately, her ‘desire’ is irrelevant to the maintenance of her marriage. By conceiving she removes the halakhic compulsion for divorce” (76–77). In my opinion, the story's main theme is the wife's love for her husband, not her “desire” for him.

15. See Baskin, Judith R., “Rabbinic Reflections on the Barren Wife,” Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 1 (1989): 101114, which quotes the story from Pesikta de-Rav Kahana and concludes that in cases of childlessness, the rabbis preferred prayer as a potential remedy and discouraged divorce.

16. These words appear verbatim as a formulaic conclusion to the first passage of that Pesikta. There the words function most appropriately as a connecting link between the passage's central theme—Sarah's joy after giving birth and the feast that she gave, and the verse “Rejoicing in the Lord I give joy” (Isaiah 61:10). The redactor's use of this formula here clearly seems secondary in nature.

17. Presumably the story originated as some kind of a folk legend and later was adapted to serve a halakhic function. This presumption may find support in Midrash Pesikta Rabbati (Piska 30, Nahamu Nahamu, 141) where we find the same basic story told in parable form, without its familiar halakhic connotations (see Meir, Ofra, “Ha-nuschaot ha-yehudiyot shel hatipus hasipuri A.T. 875,” Yedʿa-aʿm: bamah le-folklor yehudi 45 [1979]: 5561).

18. The term is usually used in the field of text criticism; here I use it metaphorically to mean that in order to determine which source was the original, we may assume that the earlier version of the text underwent a process of standardization to conform to normative rulings. In our case, the normative law is found in the Mishnah and reflected in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, while Shir Hashirim Rabbah preserves the earlier unstandardized version.

19. Among them, the anonymous citation of the story, and the fact that the second passage—which has a proem format in Shir Hashirim Rabbah—ר' רבין פתח followed by a verse from afar (Psalms)—loses this structure in the Pesikta: א"ר אבין and so forth.

20. While I have not offered external proof that at the time of the homily's redaction the regnant halakhah dictated that the husband should divorce his wife in such a case, given the beginning of the Pesikta this would seem most probable. Indeed, if this was not the case, the Pesikta's assumption that they should get divorced is surprising, to say the least.

21. Schremer, who discussed this version of the homily, claimed that “This story bears a clear message of social-cultural criticism, on the halakhic demand to dissolve the bond of marriage since the obligation to procreate was not fulfilled there. That halakhah is cruel in the view of the author, and morally distorted. In his opinion the purpose of having children is only one aspect of the marriage, but there is also the aspect of the love that exists between the married couple” (Schremer, Zakhar u-nekevah, 317). In Schremer's opinion, the author criticizes Rashbi, as a representative of the Halakhah, for only responding to the couple's distress by praying for them at the end of the story, when he could and should have done so earlier.

In my opinion, Shremer's reading is open to dispute, especially as it applies to the Pesikta's version. As I have demonstrated, the Pesikta's version harmonizes the mishnaic halakhah with the story far more than Shir Hashirim Rabbah does. Furthermore, as I have shown, the author actually praises Rashbi for taking the initiative and ultimately praying for the couple, as praying for them before they went through the process would have not been efficacious (cf. Hevroni, Ido, “The Midrash as Marriage Guide,” Azure 29 [2007]: 103120).

22. Cf. Lau, Benjamin, “The Two Objectives of the Institution of Marriage,” Milin Havivin 3 (2007): 5267.

This article is based on a lecture presented at the 41st annual conference of the AJS in Los Angeles (December 2009). I would like to express my gratitude to professors Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Michael L. Satlow, and Aharon Shemesh for their input. I would also like to thank Beit Shalom Kyoto Japan for their financial support and Meshulam Gotlieb for ably translating this article.

“The Wise Woman from Saida”: The Silent Dialogue between Aggadah and Halakhah Regarding Women and Marriage

  • Arnon Atzmon (a1)


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