Beruriah of Palestine

A scholar in her own right.

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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.

A Plot of Seduction

In the Middle Ages, a plot of seduction and shame was superimposed on the heroic character of Beruriah. The shocking account was first written down by Rashi in the eleventh century as part of his commentary to the Talmud (B. Avodah Zarah 18b). The passage itself alludes to the fact that R. Meir had to flee from the Romans because he had rescued his wife's (Beruriah's) sister from a Roman brothel. Rashi adds his own postscript to this passage: "But some say [he had to flee] because of the Beruriah incident."

According to Rashi's explanation, Meir arranged the seduction of his wife by one of his pupils in order to prove the validity of the Talmudic claim that women are light-minded. After many refusals, Beruriah finally yielded to the student's sexual advances. When she realized that her husband had set the trap for her, she hung herself and Meir ran away out of shame.

A Heroine for All of Time

This incident, while not part of the original talmudic composite, raises some disturbing questions: Could a woman such as Beruriah have existed in the land of Israel in the second century? If the education of women was rare, then Beruriah was more likely an exception or a legend. Whether she was fictional or historical, why did Rashi feel obliged to damage the reputation of a righteous and learned woman by writing down these stories? Despite the unanswered questions associated with her, Beruriah's name continues to resonate in women's history and she remains an exemplary heroine for scholarly Jewish women.

 The Death of Bruriah's Sons

This legend from a post-talmudic source illustrates Beruriah's strength and religious faith. "Some time ago a man came and gave me a deposit in trust, and now he comes to claim that deposit. Shall we return it or not?" He answered her: "My daughter, whoever has a deposit in trust, must he not return it to its owner?" She said to him: "Had you not said so, I would not have returned it." Beruriah then took his hand and brought him up to the room [where their sons were lying] and drew him near the bed and drew down the sheet, and he saw the two of them dead and collapsed on the bed. He began to cry ... at the same time she [Beruriah] said to R. Meir: "Did you not say we must return the deposit to its owner? It is said, the Lord has given, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." (Midrash Proverbs 37: 76-29)

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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.