Berakhot 51

Raise a glass, ladies!

Today’s page of learning begins with many fun facts about asparagus. The rabbis are huge fans of asparagus (i.e. major health benefits for the heart and eyes). Huge. You may want to try out their version of asparagus, as a fermented drink. They took it to the next level.

Today, however, we’ll focus on a fascinating story in the latter half of today’s page. We have this beautiful practice in Judaism that stems from a verse in Psalms (116:13) “I will lift the cup of salvation and upon the name of the Lord I will call.” As a result, during a particularly festive meal (i.e. a wedding) or a large meal (generally with ten people or more), we begin the Birkat Hamazon by raising a glass, but not just any glass. The glass has grape juice, wine, or some other fine beverage, and a blessing is made over it. Following the conclusion of Birkat Hamazon, the person reciting the blessing along with the other lunch or dinner guests takes a sip of this wine. So we have this custom of raising a glass at the end of a festive meal, thanks to a verse in psalms.

Enter Yalta into today’s daf. Yalta came from a prominent family as her father was the exilarch representing the Jewish people in the government. She pops up a number of times in the pages of the Talmud, but she is most well known for the story that transpires on page 51 in Berakhot. You see, Yalta knew how to command a room. She expected and begot first class service. That is, until the following story transpired.

The setting for this story is a dinner party at the home of Yalta and her husband, Rav Nachman. After the meal had concluded, their honored guest, Ulla, recited Birkat Hamazon over a cup. Rav Nachman asked Ulla to pass the cup to Yalta but Ulla refused and kept it to the men’s section only. He argued that women do not need the cup of blessing; and quoted a teaching from Rabbi Yohanan to drive home the point:

Rabbi Yohanan said as follows: The fruit of a woman’s body is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s body, as it is stated: “…He will bless the fruit of your body” (Deuteronomy 7:13). The Torah does not say “He will bless the fruit of her body” but rather, “He will bless the fruit of your [masculine singular] body.”

While most women may have been accustomed to being passed over, Yalta was having none of it. She left the table, went to the wine cellar, and smashed 400 barrels of wine. Rav Nachman immediately instructed Ulla to send his wife a different glass of wine from the same original barrel of the original cup in order to smooth over the situation. Unappeased, Yalta sent stinging words back to Ulla:

From itinerant peddlers [Ulla traveled regularly between Babylonia to Israel] come meaningless words, and from rags come lice.

Some commentaries soften Yalta’s rage, claiming that she didn’t actually break the barrels, rather she closed the cellar so that nobody could have access to the wine. The Talmud, however, has no apparent qualms about lauding a woman who saw to it that if she couldn’t drink the blessed wine, no one could.

While we may not encourage people to destroy property like Yalta did, as there are many other ways to make a point, I like to think of her as being an inspiration for smashing the patriarchy.

Read all of Berakhot 51 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 23, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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