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The Quest for the Historical Beruriah, Rachel, and Imma Shalom

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

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Beruriah, reputedly the greatest Jewish woman scholar of all times, has figured prominently in anthologies describing the lives and deeds of Jewish sages, and in particular in books and collections dedicated to Jewish women. Most of these presentations are no more than paraphrases of the sources on which they are dependent, accepting their judgments at face value and thus giving an idealized description of the woman Beruriah.

Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 1997

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1. Henrietta, Szold, s.v. “Beruriah,” Jewish Encyclopedia(1903), vol. 3, pp. 109110; A. Heimann, Toldot Tannaim ve-Amoraim(London: Ha-Express, 1910), vol. 1, pp. 294–295; R. Gordis, s.v. “Beruriah,” Universal Jewish Encyclopedia(1940), vol. 2, p. 243; Z. Kaplan, s.v. “Beruryah,” Encyclopaedia Judaica(1971), vol. 4, col. 701; Shulamit Tov, Demuyot min ha-Talmud(Jerusalem: Graph Chen, 1988), pp. 67–76. In A. Blumenthal, Rabbi Meir: Leben und Wirken eines jüdischen Weisen(Frankfurt a.M: Kauffmann, 1888), one section (pp. 108–112) is devoted to Rabbi Meir's learned wife.Google Scholar

2. Kayserling, M., Die jüdischen Frauen in der Geschichte, Literatur und Kunst(Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1879), pp. 120121;Google ScholarZimdorf, H., Some Jewish Women(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1892), pp. 162173;Google ScholarSafrai, S., “Nashim Hakhamot Torah bi-Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud,” Mahanaim 98 (1965): 5859;Google Scholar Ann Goldfeld, “Women as Sources of Torah in Rabbinic Tradition,” in The Jewish Woman,ed. Elizabeth Koltun (New York: Schocken, 1976), pp. 257–271;Swidler, L., “Beruriah: Her Word Became Law,” Lilith 3 (1977): 912; Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz, Written Out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers(Fresh Meadows, N.Y.: Biblio Press, 1983), pp. 54–58; Nehama Aschkenasy, Eve's Journey: Feminine Images in Hebraic Literary Tradition(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), pp. 145–146, 179–181; Judith R. Wegner, “The Image and Status of Women in Classical Rabbinic Judaism,” in Women in Historical Perspective,ed. Judith R. Baskin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), pp. 68–93.Google Scholar

3. Goodblatt, D., “The Beruriah Traditions,” Journal of Jewish Studies 26 (1975): 6885.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4. See above, n. 2; also: Rachel Adler, “The Virgin in the Brothel and Other Anomalies: Character and Context in the Legend of Beruriah,” Tikkun3, no. 6 (1988): 28–32, 102–105; D. Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 167–196. Both of these works will be discussed below.

5. For example, in an article published in 1973, Alisa Shenhar discussed the folktale nature of the story of Rabbi Meir's wife and the death of his two sons (Midrash Mishlei31:10). See her “Le-Amamiyuta shel Agadat Beruriah Eshet Rabbi Meir” (“On the Folkloristic Nature of the Legend of Beruriah Wife of Rabbi Meir”), in Mehkarei ha-Merkaz le-Heker ha-Folklore(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1973), vol. 3, pp. 223–227. After Goodblatt's discussion, Shenhar's choice of a name for the article implies that she failed to notice that Midrash Mishleileaves Rabbi Meir's wife unnamed. It is interesting to note that Judith Hauptman, although not yet familiar with Goodblatt's ideas, did not analyze all the Beruriah traditions as a whole in her “Images of Women in the Talmud,” in Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in Jewish and Christian Traditions,ed. Rosemary R. Ruether (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974), pp. 201, 203, 204. Leone Archer, Her Price Is Beyond Rubies: The Jewish Woman in Graeco-Roman Palestine,JSOT Supplement Series 60 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), pp. 97–99, had read Goodblatt's article and agreed with his conclusions because they fitted with her general notion of women's position in Palestine at the time, but she failed utterly to internalize his systematic source analysis, as is shown by her treatment of the Beruriah traditions, and by her general attitude to the rabbinic literature throughout her book. However, Goodblatt's conclusions are hardly worth mentioning when not dependent on his source analysis.

6. A similar tradition about a saintly man who brings rain is found in the Palestinian Talmud (yTa 'anit1:4, 64b), where the wonder-worker is simply referred to as “a saint of Kefar Ami,” but the story of rain coming from the wife's direction and its explanation are missing.

7. This, as opposed to the opinion expressed by Goldfeld, “Women as Sources of Torah,” pp. 265, 267–269, who sees in these two traditions two separate examples of Jewish women serving as sources of Torah transmission.

8. Boyarin, Carnal Israel,pp. 184192.Google Scholar

9. Adler, “Virgin in the Brothel.”

10. Ibid., p. 29. A similar sentiment was voiced earlier by H. Kosmala, “Gedanken zur Kontroverse Farbstein-Hoch,” Judaica4 (1948): 231–232.

11. The connection between the two seduction stories was already noted by Blumenthal, Rabbi Meir: Leben und Wirken,pp. 111–112. On the literary motif of this seduction story, see J. Perles, “Rabbinische Aggadas in 1001 Nacht,” Monatsschrift fur Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums22 (1873): 78–81. Another story about Rabbi Meir being seduced is found in the late midrash on the Ten Commandments; cf. A. Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch(Jerusalem: Bamberger & Wahrmann, 1938), vol. 1, pp. 81–83. On the connection between the three seduction stories and a theory making Rashi's version old and authentic, see Alisa Shenhar, “Le-Demuto shel Rabbi Meir ve-Itzuva be-Safrut ha-Agadah,” in Heker ve-Iyun be-Madaei ha-Yahadut,ed. Y. Bahat, M. Ben-Asher, and T. Fenton (Haifa: Haifa University Press, 1976), pp. 259–266.

12. Boyarin, Carnal Israel,p. 193, claims that the medieval scholar Rabbi Judah of Ashkenaz understood rosa as her halakhic rulings, which her husband did not follow, and as a result had to go into exile. But in Judah's Yohasei Tannaim ve-Amoraim,ed. N. N. Rabinovitz (Lyck: Makitze Nirdamim, 1874), pp. 10b–1 la, I found no hint of this interpretation.

13. For a thorough analysis of this literary theme, see H. Schwartzbaum, “International Folklore Motifs in Joseph ibn Zabara's 'sefer Shaashuim',” in Studies in Aggadah and Jewish Folklore,ed. I. Ben-Ami and J. Dan = Folklore Research Center Studies(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1983), vol. 7, pp. 66–71, n. 38. Cf. M. H. Levine, “Three Talmudic Tales of Seduction,” Judaism36 (1987): 466–470. On the international nature of this theme and its connection with the theme of the widow of Ephesus, also found in the Tosafot's commentary on bQiddushin80b (see dibur ha-mathil “ki”),see E. Grisebach, Die Wanderung der Novelle von der treulosen Wittwe durch die Welt Literatur(Berlin: F. & P. Lehmann, 1889), pp. 26–29, 51.

14. M. Gaster, The Exempla of the Rabbis(1924; reprint ed., New York: Ktav, 1968), p. 158, no. 412.

15. I would like to draw attention here to the danger of using Rashi as though his text were part of the Talmud. Recently, in a really excellent and learned book, Ross S. Kraemer quoted this Rashi narrative as if it were from some rabbinic work. It is not clear whether Kraemer assumed that the story was found in the Mishnah or in the Babylonian Talmud, since she cites it as “m. Sotah 22b.” The consequences of this mistake for her study are obvious. See Ross S. Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessing: Women's Religion Among Pagans, Jews and Christians(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 109 and 230, n. 26.

16. Goodblatt, , “Beruriah Traditions,” pp. 8485.Google Scholar

17. Boyarin, , Carnal Israel,pp. 194195.Google Scholar

18. Adler, “Virgin in the Brothel,” p. 104.

19. S. Safrai, “Tales of the Sages in the Palestinian Tradition and the Babylonian Talmud,” in Studies in Aggadah and Folk-Literature,ed. J. Heinemann and D. Noy = Scripta Hierosolymitana(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1971), vol. 22, pp. 229–232. The story of Rabbi Aqiva and his wife has been widely discussed in Hebrew. An interesting comparison of the two versions of the story in the Babylonian Talmud is found in A. Aderet, “Ha-Sipur be-Sefer ha-Agada B, Alex Siah4–5 (1978): 122–129. A similar motif found in ancient Chinese tradition is mentioned by E. Bin-Gorion, Shevilei Aggadah(Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1950), pp. 61–62. The motif is also discussed by Zipora Kagan, ”Ha-Isha ha-Neemana ba-Sipur ha-Amami,“ Mahanaim98 (1965): 144–149. Cf. also Yaffa Kemer, ”Ha-Agadah al Rachel ve-Rabbi Aqiva,“ Maalot8, no. 6 (1977): 37–40.

20. Safrai, “Tales of the Sages.”

21. Goodblatt, , “Beruriah Traditions,” pp. 7677.Google Scholar

22. Finkelstein, , Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr(New York: Covici, Fried, 1936), pp. 2223.Google Scholar

23. Schechter ed., p. 29.

24. See my “Notes on the Distribution of Jewish Women's Names in Palestine in the Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods,” Journal of Jewish Studies40 (1989): 197. It appears for the first time on a late inscription from the Beit Shearim cemetery and in Greek. See B. Lifschitz and M. Schwabe, Beit She'arim(Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1974), vol. 2, p. 94, no. 121. This Rachel also had a second, Greek name, Ourania, and apparently came from Asia Minor or, alternatively, Eilat.

25. Version A, in its final form, should be considered later than Version B, and was apparently acquainted with the Babylonian Talmud. See M. B. Lerner, “The External Tractates,” in The Literature of the Sages,ed. S. Safrai = Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testament,sec. 2 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1987), pp. 376–377. Cf. J. Fraenkel, “Kavim Boltim be-Toldot Masoret ha-Text shel Sipur ha-Agadah,” in Divrei ha-Congress ha-Olami ha-Shevü le-Madaei ha-Yahadut(Jerusalem: World Union for Jewish Studies, 1981), vol. 3, pp. 67–68.

26. The idea that the deeds of the sages are repeated by their students or by their children, including a discussion of Rabbi Aqiva's son and daughter, is found in J. Elbaum, “Tavniyot Lashon ve-Inyan be-Maasei Hakhamim: le-Tivan shel ha-Eduyot al Rabbi Aqiva be-Avot de-Rabbi Natan,” in Divrei ha-Congress ha-Olami ha-Shevü le-Madaei ha-Yahahut(Jerusalem: World Union for Jewish Studies, 1981), vol. 3, pp. 70–77.

27. Another son-in-law of Rabbi Aqiva, Rabbi Joshua ben Qupsai, is mentioned in another section of the Babylonian Talmud (bShabbat147a), but Rabbi Aqiva, of course, could have had two sons-in-law.

28. For example, a scholarly book about Rabbi Eliezer, Y. D. Gilat, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus: A Scholar Outcast(Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1984), mentions Imma Shalom in passing and takes it for granted that her biographical credentials are trustworthy (pp. 417, 428 n. 27, and particularly 484 n. 62). In another book on Rabbi Eliezer, J. Neusner's Eliezer ben Hyrcanus: The Tradition and the Man(Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), Imma Shalom is not mentioned except in quoted traditions.

29. Kayserling, Diejüdischen Frau,p. 124; Henry and Taitz, Written Out of History,p. 47. J. Elbaum, “Demuyot Nashim be-Aggadat Hazal–Model le-Hikui,” Hagut= Ha Isha be-Mekorot ha-Yahadut(Jerusalem: Israel Ministry of Education, 1983), p. 26, mentions Beruriah together with Imma Shalom and Rachel, Aqiva's wife. One writer, L. Swidler, however, attempted the opposite. He claimed that Imma Shalom had not achieved scholarly greatness, as compared to Beruriah, who had, and thus she only proved Beruriah's uniqueness. See L. Swidler, Women in Judaism: The Status of Women in Formative Judaism(Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1976), p. 104.

30. See Zirndorf, Some Jewish Women,pp. 142–144; S. Mendelsohn, s.v. “Imma Shalom,” Jewish Encyclopedia(1904), vol. 6, p. 562; Swidler, Women in Judaism,p. 104; Henry and Taitz, Written Out of History,pp. 52–53, although they acknowledge the fact that the speaker is actually not Imma Shalom.

31. Hurwitz, S.I.Ish, “Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos ve-Haskalt ha-Nashim,” Hashahar 11 (1883): 437441.Google Scholar

32. Weiss, J.H. ed., 45c.Google Scholar

33. Margaliot, M. ed., p. 449.Google Scholar

34. Mandelbaum, B. ed., p. 393.Google Scholar

35. This source reveals a unique paradox: although the sexual behavior it describes supposedly displays a high level of piety and modesty (cf. Gilat, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus,p. 484, n. 62), detailed descriptions of sexual practices like this one are altogether rare in rabbinic literature, most likely because of their indiscreet nature.

36. In bBerakhot3a, Rabbi Eliezer recommends sexual intercourse between husband and wife in the middle of the night, as described here by Imma Shalom. Either this source generated the story about Imma Shalom or the story about Imma Shalom generated this attribution to Rabbi Eliezer, or both sources existed simultaneously, indicating that they contain a grain of truth. I suspect that one of the first two reconstructions is the correct one.

37. Mandelbaum, B. ed., pp. 260261.Google Scholar

38. Numbers 27:1–11. On the Sadducee-Pharisee polemic over this, cf. yYadaim2:20, yBaba Batra8:1, 16a.

39. See particularly Roman law: Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves(New York: Schocken, 1975), pp. 161–163.

40. For a connection between this tradition and Christianity on a different level, see B. L. Visotzky, “Overturning the Lamp,” Journal of Jewish Studies38 (1987): 72–80.

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