One Needs Humor

Or wit. A witty answer can be a good response to a difficult issue.

For married or otherwise attached-to-a-man women: How would you respond if someone told your husband (or significant other) not to talk too much to you?

Here’s the quote from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:5:

5. Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna.

More Pirkei Avot here.

My initial reaction: that’s it! No more studying 2000 year old texts! From now on, you’re getting posts on gardening, recipes, and maybe one or two on therapy and depression.

Then: OK, I’ll do a little research. Found some idea somewhere that perhaps the “talk” here refers to idle gossip. But the word in Hebrew is שיחה — siḥah. My husband pointed out that “siḥah” in Breishit refers to Yitzchak going out to the field to pray(Genesis 24:63):
וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה So it can’t mean gossip.

Then I found this commentary, a response by Bruriah (or Beruriah), an extremely knowledgeable woman from those times:

There is a story concerning this saying and the one woman highly respected in the Talmud as a scholar—Beruriah, the daughter of Chananiah ben Tradion (see 3:3) and wife of Rabbi Meir (see 4:12). Rabbi Yosse the Galilean was once walking on a road when he encountered Beruria, and he asked her: “By which road do we go to the city of Lydda?” She replied, “Galilean fool!, do not the sages say, ‘Don’t talk a lot with the woman’? You should have said, ‘Whither Lydda?’”(Er. 53b.)

Here is the story behind the story. Divorce was rare among the Rabbis, but Rabbi Yosse the Galilean divorced his wife—who was reputed to be a shrew. Beruriah would have known Rabbi Yosse and his ex-wife, since Yosse and her own husband Meir had both been students of Rabbi Akiva (see 3:17-20). Beruriah was as sharp-tongued as she was brilliant, and may well have sympathized with the ex-wife. This exchange was evidently in public, and in saying “which way do we go to Lydda,” Yosse may have embarrassed Beruriah with the innuendo. Hence her calling him a fool and retorting with the ‘perfect squelch’—ridiculing in one erudite turn of phrase both Rabbi Yosse’s ‘macho’ taunting and this misogynistic saying from Avot.

Years ago I had a Mad Magazine book called Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. I imagine Bruriah did that naturally. Can anyone offer suggestions on how to develop a sharp wit? Seems like it could be quite helpful in studying Talmud.

Ilana-Davita and I have begun to study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) this summer. It worked well with the Book of Ruth. Who knows what kind of topics might come up… Feel free to do a little studying of your own.

And if you are knowledgeable about Pirkei Avot, any books or commentary suggestions are most welcome. I’ve started to look at Kehati, which is a modern commentary in Hebrew.

 Ilana-Davita: Pirkei Avot: The Name

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24 thoughts on “One Needs Humor

  • Mom, which blogs are the tough ones?

    Good post, Leora. Is it totally scandalous, as a frum Jew, to say that perhaps some of the Talmud is a reflection of the time it was written in? And the Rabbis meant what they said, and at the time it was acceptable, and though we may take offense today, it’s just the way things were in those days. So I don’t get offended, because if those Rabbis were writing the Talmud today, they would say other things.

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar….(not said by a Rabbi).

  • Baila,
    “a cigar is just a cigar”
    reminds me of
    Ceci n’est pas une pipe: a painting by Magritte

    I try to say things as politely as possible so I offend the least amount of people but still say what my gut needs to say. It’s a tightrope walk.

    Would love it if you joined us in studying Pirkei Avot. Yes, email anything that you are not ready to say in a post or a comment. Questions, comments, aggravations.

  • “and do not talk much with women”-

    This joins such time honored classics as:
    women can’t be called to the Torah
    women can’t lead prayers
    women can’t learn Talmud
    women must obey their husbands
    women’s intelligence is inferior (“nashim da’atan kalot”)
    women must cover every inch of their bodies and heads
    women are seductresses that lead men to evil
    yada, yada, yada…

    You gotta hand it to those Rabbis. They’ve left no stone unturned in their macho quest to belittle and marginalize women.

  • You might want to take a look at the commentary on this passage on the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) Rabin Mishna Study Group.
    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3

    An excerpt:

    When it comes to a question of fulfilling the duty of hospitality the mistress of the home is also involved. There is a rabbinic opinion according to which the mistress of the house is less favourable to offering hospitality (probably because of the extra work involved). If we accept that the statement of Yosé ben-Yoĥanan is to be understood in connection with the general topic of hospitality then it would seem that he is saying that when guests arrive do not start a discussion with your wife on this matter, but just tell her briefly to prepare for them. The biblical example would be the way Abraham deals with just such a situation [Genesis 18]. Three guests arrive; Abraham begs them to accept his hospitality and then

    Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice … and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.

    Note how briefly Abraham speaks with Sarah on this matter.

  • OK, Larry, that sort of works. One puts the quote in the context of hospitality and how one is supposed to focus on the guests instead of the wife.

    But later your source says:
    “However, most of our sources do not make such a connection with hospitality, and they see our mishnah as making a blanket statement against chatting with women.”

    Thanks for the source in general. It will come in handy as I look up more of Pirkei Avot.

  • Well Leora, there are 70 faces to the Torah. I’m glad just to find one that is easy to live with – expecting to like all 70 seems a bit extreme to me.

    I’m glad that it doesn’t bother you to use a non-Orthodox site.

  • Larry, I’m OK with Israeli Masorti sites. It would be interesting to hear a Reform perspective on all these women issues, even though no one in my world pays much attention to those, other than to put them down. Anything to the “left” of that is no longer Judaism.

    When it comes to women’s issues in Judaism, I often feel like: “oh, there’s another one that I have to learn to live with.” An explanation that “fits” usually feels apologetic.

    Ilana-Davita, looking forward to your thoughts on Pirkei Avot on your blog. I’m thinking of writing a post introducing Pirkei Avot, giving a little background.

  • Rabbi Simcha Roth comes up with an unusual suggestion for an aggadic approach to incorporating gender equality in his commentary on Sanhedrin 3:4. It is worth following the link to the full discussion but here is an excerpt:

    I do not think that it is too far-fetched to claim that just as the sages accepted that the contemporary inhabitants of Ammon and Moab were not the Ammonites and Moabites referred to by the Biblical record, so we might claim that the modern adult woman, not being held to be under the sway of her father or husband, is not “a woman” as understood by the rabbis.

    What my suggestion means is that the social status of the modern woman is so changed that we can no longer assume that when the Torah legislates for a women who is secluded in the privacy of her home and would not wish to socialize in mixed society, that it is also legislating for a different kind of woman. We might claim that just as “Sennacherib King of Assyria mixed up all the nations” was sufficient justification for assuming that Ammon and Moab were no longer the Biblical Ammon and Moab, so might we claim that “Napoleon Emperor of the French reversed all the social mores” – or some similar claim.

  • Larry, I’m going to leave the voting to them, but the descriptions of the choices are intriguing. Like Avodah Zara:”How did Jews living in Eretz-Israel relate to the religious ceremonies and festivals of their non-Jewish neighbours?”

    In theory, Bava Kamma sounds interesting, but in reality my brain turns off when I hear too many rules. That might not be the best one for me.

  • We recently started a study group at our pool on Shabbat afternoons, we call it Pirkei Plus++++ to include a wider range of topics. It is an ecclectic group of people from many different congregations. In a discussion of women in the Talmud, Ima Shalom came up. As presented in the book Remarkable Jewish Women by Emily Taitz and Sondra Henry.

    She as well as Beruriah, used considerable wit. When, for example, she reportedly responded to an emperor who had “challenged the Jews concerning their God”.

    “Your God is a thief,” he said. “because he stole a rib from Adam”
    Ima Shalom is said to have answered: “Last night a robber broke into my house and carried away some silver vessels leaving gold ones in their place.”
    “I wish such a robber visited my house every night!” the emperor responded
    “This is what happened to Adam'” she informed him. “God took a rib from him and gave him a wife in its place.”

  • B”H

    Ok, I didn’t read all the comments (and the last one was about 3 months ago) but here goes. (disclaimer: some people might find these comments in the realm of apikorsut, though I’m hardly knowledgeable enough to be a apikores)

    1) Not everything in the Talmud is Tora-she-ba’al-peh — Oral Tora. Some of it, like Pirkei Avot, is just the musings (ok, so it’s more than musings) of Rabbis.

    2) Not everything in the Talmud is designed to be followed to the letter forever and ever.

    3) Avot (aka Pirkei Avot) is very different from most of the rest of the Talmud (not to say you can’t find little “ditties” like these in other parts of the Talmud…) — it’s not halakha based, it’s more like advice. I’ve gotten the impression that most of it is suggestion (there’s a whole bit on how what Antignos ish Soho says leads two of his students, Tzadok and Bay’sot, off the derekh — seriously off the derekh — one was the founder of the Tzadokim, the Tora literalists, so I can’t imagine that all is intended to be taken literally forever).

  • B”H

    [Continued — I accidentally hit the Enter button before I was finished….]

    In any case, it’s funny (that’s ironic funny) that whenever I asked my Rabbi teachers (in elementary and high school) about women’s input into the halakhic river (so to speak) they would always say that they spoke a lot to their wives. But did they? How could they say that the wives had input into their opinions if they didn’t talk to their wives??????


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