The Rebbetzin

At the far end of the town of Tiflus, in a small house built upon the foundations of Torah, piety, and loving kindness, lived a soft-spoken boy named Beruri. His teachers praised him and he was a comfort to his mother in her old age, for he had been miraculously born many years after the way of women had departed from her. When he squeezed out of her womb with the loud cries of a child who does not want to leave the world of souls for the world of bodies, the midwife told Shulamit that she had given birth to a son. The other women in the room said it was a shame, after struggling for so long to become pregnant, that she had only conceived a boy. But Beruri’s mother said, “This boy will be better to me than ten daughters,” and refused to let the other women console her as if having a son were a great misfortune.

The boy Beruri entered the yeshiva at the age of five and began to study the laws of the last four books of the Torah. Boys are not taught the stories of creation from the first book of the Torah, for these stories are like the trees of an orchard that few men can walk through without losing their reason or their faith. When he turned ten, Beruri’s teachers introduced him to the books of the Mishna. He learned so quickly that they began to teach him Gemara at the age of thirteen, although the Ethics of our Mothers states that boys should not begin Talmud study until the age of fifteen. He was not loud and fiery like the other students who shouted at each other over the pages of legal arguments. These older boys shuckled back and forth and slammed their fists into the tables as they debated the measurements of the sukkah or the exact time at which one can no longer say evening prayers. The yeshiva was like a room full of squawking geese, as it is written, “Do not enter the learning halls of men lest you go deaf in both ears.” And there is another saying in the Tsenna Renna that teaches, “She who enters a man’s yeshiva, it is as if she enters a law school for children.”

Beruri did not shuckle or shout. When his teachers turned their backs, he flipped quietly through the pages of the Gemara until he came across aggadatah, the Talmudic folklore that male yeshiva students are not meant to study until their fortieth birthday. He read about the snake oven debate that silenced the Heavens and he read about the woman whose single tear on Yom Kippur brought her truant husband to his death. Beruri pored over these stories for hours while his peers bellowed and waved their hands over the legal minutiae of oxen that fall into holes.

One night, Beruri’s mother Shulamit heard him crying through the thin walls of his bedroom. She rushed out of the kitchen and into his room. Beruri was curled up on his bed, his head between his knees and his shoulders shaking.

“Beruri, Beruri, my son! Are you ill? Did you hurt yourself?”

“No,” said the boy, trying to swallow his sobs. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

Shulamit put her hands on both sides of her son’s face and asked him what had happened to make him cry at an age when it was no longer right for boys to do so. He hung his head.

“I was praying,” he began. “But my prayers stuck in my throat and the words were empty of meaning, because I did not have the courage to ask for what I wanted most in the world. Then I thought about how Eliezer’s bitter crying killed Gamliel and the way a single drop from Rebbetzin Rahumi’s eye brought down the roof of the yeshiva where her husband was sitting, and I remembered that God counts a woman’s tears. And I began to think that maybe if I cried, the Holy One would change my portion and let me sit in the Rebbetzin’s kitchen this Rosh Chodesh when she teaches her students the secret meaning of the story of the golden calf.”

Shulamit removed her hands from her sons face and drew back in surprise. You want to learn with the Rebbetzin?she asked.

Beruri nodded, his face still turned to the floor.

The Rebbetzin of Tiflus was a wise and pious woman who could answer any question about the laws of kashrut and family purity without opening a book. If you stuck a pin into a page of her chumash, she could teach you seventy oral traditions derived from the Hebrew letter that the pin touched. On Friday night, hundreds of women would gather outside of her window to watch her light the Sabbath candles. Then they would walk inside, one by one, to the kitchen where the Rebbetzin sat under a painting of a palm tree. This represented the tree of life, as it is said, “She is a tree of life to those who cling to her.” She blessed each woman who came to her with words of loving wisdom. People came from all over the world to seek the Rebbetzin of Tiflus’s counsel and hear her expound upon the mysteries of creation. They said that she could sow a barren womb with fruit and fill the pockets of the poor just by tying her hair covering a certain way in the morning.

Shulamit was troubled because her son was reading aggadatot that were beyond his years, because he was using tears in the powerful way a woman would, and because she saw in his face that he would not be happy until he sat in the Rebbetzin’s kitchen. So the next morning, after her son had left for the yeshiva, she made a honey cake, tied a scarf around her head, and walked to the Rebbetzin’s house.

The Gabbait opened the door and greeted Shulamit, who presented the honey cake and asked to speak with the Rebbetzin.

“The Rebbetzin is teaching Perek Hachelek,” said the Gabbait. “But you may sit in the back of the kitchen until the lesson is over.”

The Rebbetzin’s kitchen was a place of gathering for the most learned and important women in the community. It was not a large room, but like the holy Temple (may it be rebuilt speedily in our days) seemed to expand miraculously to fit the many students eager to hear the Rebbetzin’s Torah. The weavers, teachers, and poets sat in the first row. The rich women who eased the suffering of sick and poor Jews in Tiflus with endless acts of charity sat in the second. The midwives and healers sat in the third. In the back of the room, there were a few chairs for the pious young women who dreamed of becoming Rebbetzins themselves and for the visitors who had traveled far to receive a blessing from one of the holiest women of the generation.

Shulamit seated herself quietly in an empty chair at the back and listened to the Rebbetzin’s shiur.

When the lesson was over, the Rebbetzin walked her students to the door and parted with each one as she would from an honored guest. Then she returned to the kitchen, seated herself beneath the picture of the palm tree, and beckoned to Shulamit.

“I am listening,” she said.

Shulamit drew her chair near to the chair of the Rebbetzin and began to speak. She told the holy woman all about her son Beruri: how unnaturally reserved and quiet he was in the yeshiva, how he read aggadatah behind his teachers’ backs, and most of all how he desired to sit in the Rebbetzin’s shiur on the first of the month so badly that he had taught himself to cry like a woman in the hope that God would see his tears and answer his prayer.

“But,” said Shulamit, “I know that the teachings on Rosh Chodesh are not fit for men to learn, and how much more so for a young boy like Beruri. He should have been a comfort to me in my old age, but now I am afraid that he will become like Ben Zoma who lost his mind encountering God’s mysteries in the orchard, or else like Elisha Ben Abuya (Heaven forbid) who strayed and caused others to stray from the path of our mothers because he studied secrets that he could not understand.”

The Rebbetzin sat deep in thought. Shulamit watched the holy woman’s face anxiously. At the end of many minutes, the Rebbetzin looked up at Shulamit and her eyes were the eyes of one who understands the meaning of the phrase, “preserver of kindness for thousands of generations.”

“Bring the boy to me on the first of the month,” she instructed Shulamit. “Have him dress all in white, as is the custom of women on Rosh Chodesh, and tell him to come to the front entrance of the house. And pray that he is not like Ben Zoma or Acher, who were lost in the orchard, but rather like the holy Akiva who waited twenty-four long years for his wife Rachel while she studied the secrets of the Prophets in the Seminary of Daatkalah.”

Read part 2 of the story here. 

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