Em: Female Personality in the Babylonian Talmud

This fourth century woman from the Babylonian Talmud gave halakhic and medical advice.


Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Aside from various women for whom short entries are available throughout this encyclopedia, it is necessary to list several women mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud under a common heading.

EM (Fourth century C.E.). This woman is mentioned in no fewer than seventeen separate incidents in the Babylonian Talmud (of which only one is parallel to another). She is always mentioned in exactly the same formula: a rabbi states: “Em said to me” and these words are followed by useful, thoughtful and authoritative advice, which is never disputed.

TalmudBecause in fourteen of these traditions the person who quotes her is the fourth-century Babylonian amora Abbaye (278-338), it is usually assumed in scholarly circles that she was his mother, and that Em is a description (mother) rather than a name. The Babylonian Talmud itself already voices this explanation. The editors of the Talmud, however, knew that this woman could not have been Abbaye’s mother, since according to another tradition, his mother had died while giving birth to him (Kiddushin 31b). They solved the contradiction by assuming that the woman in question was his adoptive mother.

However, one tradition in the Babylonian Talmud suggests that when a sage quotes his mother he does not say “(a) mother said to me” but rather “my mother said to me” (Pesahim 112a). Furthermore, one other rabbi, aside from Abbaye, his late contemporary Ravina (the editor of the Talmud) is also mentioned as quoting Em authoritatively in the same way (Berakhot 39b; Menahot 68b). This suggests that Em was perhaps a famous, authoritative woman known to the rabbis of Babylonia.

Authority and Decision Making

It is therefore interesting to note what is the source of her authority. In one tradition she explains the nature of gossip (Moed Katan 12b). In another she shows expertise in amulets (Shabbat 66b). But in most other traditions she is an expert on folk remedies and diets (e.g. Eruvin 29b; Ketubbot 10b; Gittin 67b; 70a; Avodah Zarah 28b). In most of these she specializes in the welfare of children and their growth.

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Tal Ilan is currently a professor of Jewish studies at the Free University, Berlin (Germany). She was born in Israel and received all her degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a historian who specializes in Jewish women's history in antiquity.

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