Beruriah of Palestine

A scholar in her own right.

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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women, (Jewish Publication Society).

Beruriah's name is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud and in various ancient and medieval writings, and she has become legendary. Although possibly fictional, the following anecdotes convey a typical account of Beruriah's life. Beruriah, a daughter of the great Palestinian sage R. Hananiah ben Teradion, was an accomplished scholar. Even as a young girl, her intelligence surpassed that of her brother. It was said she learned "three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day" (B. Pesahim 62b). She married R. Meir, the miracle worker and one of the great sages of the Mishnaic period.beruriah

Challenging the Status Quo

Tragedy stalked Beruriah and her family. Her father was martyred by the Romans, and her mother and brother also died violently. Her two sons died suddenly in a single day, and her sister was carried off into exile. Beruriah could be loving and gentle, as she was with her husband, Meir, and also arrogant and biting, even to great scholars. She ridiculed a sectarian (B. Berakhot l0a), derided an erring student (B. Eruvin 53b 54a), and made a fool of R. Jose the Galilean when he met her on the road (B. Eruvin 53b).

When she mocked the sages' belief that women are weak and easily seduced, she challenged the prevailing wisdom of her time and came to a shameful end, proving the contention of the Rabbis that any woman who studies excessively, like Beruriah, is vulnerable to sexual sin.

Theories About Bruriah

These accounts concerning Beruriah are made up of different components, most written much later by many different men. In the Babylonian Talmud she is called the wife of R. Meir, pupil of R. Akiva. In the two passages about her in the Tosefta (an earlier, Palestinian compilation) she is referred to once by name with no association to any male relative (Tos. Kelim, Bava Metzia 1:6), and the second time as the unnamed daughter of R. Hananiah (Tos. Kelim, Bava Kamma 4:17). Because of these variations, it has been suggested that perhaps two or even three historical women became incorporated into a single persona. One is Beruriah the scholar, another is the wife of R. Meir, and a third is the daughter of R. Hananiah ben Teradion. In the stories from the Babylonian Talmud that portrayed Beruriah as a scholar, her name was mentioned alone, without reference to husband or father. In these reports she was quick, sarcastic, and knowledgeable in areas beyond domestic issues.

In the stories that refer to Beruriah as R. Meir's wife, she is compassionate, gentle, patient, and understanding as well as wise. She quoted Bible passages to her husband in order to improve the quality of his prayer (B. Berakhot l0a), and comforted him when their children died. But these examples of Beruriahs emotional strength and intellectual ability are not the sum total of her story.

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Emily Taitz

Emily Taitz has a PhD in medieval Jewish history from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She taught women's history at Adelphi University and is presently co-editor of The New Light, a literary magazine.