Author Archives: Tal Ilan

About Tal Ilan

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.

Rachel: Wife of Rabbi Akiba

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

Rachel is the medieval name given to the wife of Rabbi Akiba in the late Avot de-Rabbi Nathan version A (chapter 6). In none of the older sources is a name attached to this woman, although she was well known.

Rabbi Akiba’s wife is mentioned in three separate sources. While these tell different stories about her, they agree on two details, which may represent the historical core behind the woman. All sources–The Babylonian Talmud (Ketubbot 62b; Nedarim 50a), The Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 6:1, 7d; Sotah 9:15, 24c) and Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (Version A, chapter 6; Version B chapter 12)–agree that Rabbi Akiba’s wife was in some way instrumental in her husband’s rise to prominence. He began his life as a pauper and through her agency became learned and rich. In addition, all the sources know that her husband rewarded her for her troubles with a glamorous headdress usually identified as a golden city, or a golden Jerusalem (see also Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 59a–b).

Aside from these two details, the sources tell different stories about how Akiba’s wife helped her husband, and in some details contradict one another. Thus the Babylonian Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiba was a shepherd employed by the rich Jerusalem magnate Ben Kalba Savu’a. His daughter saw Akiba, recognized his hidden qualities and proposed to him on condition that he go and study. This resulted in her father’s disowning her. Disowned by her father and deserted by her husband, Akiba’s wife was left to fend for herself for twenty-four years, until finally her husband returned in glory and recognized his wife’s role in his success, saying to his disciples: “Mine and yours are hers.”

This story, told twice in the Babylonian Talmud, seems to contradict itself in some details. In one of the versions Akiba’s studies are presented as a condition without the fulfillment of which no marriage will take place (Babylonian Talmud Ketubbot 62b). Thus Akiba goes off to study after betrothal, but without consummation. In the other version (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 50a) Akiba sets out on his studies only after the couple has lived in poverty for some time.

Em: Female Personality in the Babylonian Talmud

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.