“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”
– Dorothy Parker (née Rothschild)
A very comprehensive mishnah on Ketubot 64b lists the provisions that a husband who is absent from the home for a period of time must provide for his wife, typically through a third party. These include: grains, legumes, fruit, oil, a bed, a hat, a belt and new shoes at each festival. He also must provide seasonally appropriate clothes, pocket money, and visits for Shabbat dinner every Friday night. This seems like a reasonably generous and comfortable list, but the rabbis notice that one thing in particular is missing: wine. Therefore, today we find a robust conversation about whether wine should be provided for the wife who must live much of the time without her husband, and if so, how much.
After reading various opinions that largely agree that if a woman is accustomed to drinking wine, she should be provided with some measure of it, we are treated to this gem of a passage:
It was taught: One cup of wine is good for a woman; two cups is a disgrace; after three cups, she will verbally request (sexual intercourse); after four cups, she will even request intercourse from a donkey in the marketplace, as she is not particular.
Rava said: They taught this only if her husband is not with her. However, if her husband is with her, we have no problem with it.
This portrait of a woman whose inhibitions — and then discernment — recede with each cup of wine is amusingly sketched. But the rabbis do not seem to object to drunkenness for its own sake. Rava is not concerned if a woman gets drunk with her husband, since she will turn to him for sex rather than an inappropriate partner (human or otherwise). This opinion foreshadows another fun story a bit further down the page when we see Rava getting in hot water himself while deciding one such case, on behalf of the widow of his study partner and good friend, Abaye.
Abaye’s wife, Homa, came before Rava (after Abaye died).
She said to him: Apportion sustenance for me (as I am entitled to be sustained by Abaye’s heirs).
Rava apportioned sustenance for her.
(She then said to him): Apportion wine for me as well.
Rava said to her: I know that Nahmani (i.e., Abaye) did not drink wine.
She said to him: By the Master’s life, he would give me wine to drink in cups as large as this (gesturing with her hands).
While she was showing him the size of the cups, her arm became uncovered, and it was as if a light had shined in the courtroom.
Rava arose, went home, and requested intercourse from his wife, the daughter of Rav Hisda.
The daughter of Rav Hisda said to him: Who was just now in the courtroom?
He said to her: Homa, Abaye’s wife.
Upon hearing this, Rava’s wife went after Homa and struck her with the lock of a chest until she drove her out of the entire city of Mehoza.
This passage begins as a story about a woman who is accustomed to drinking wine and therefore requests that it be provided to her following the death of her husband. But in the course of that discussion, it is not she who experiences an uninhibited urge to have sex, but rather the rabbi who catches a glimpse of her bare arms. What is the purpose of this narrative juxtaposition between the image of the drunk, licentious women in the first passage and the lusty rabbinic judge driven to distraction by seeing the arm of his best friend’s wife in the second? (Or maybe it was her gesturing “this big.”)
An intriguing possibility is suggested by Joshua Kulp in his Daf Shevui commentary on our page: “I believe that this story is intentionally critiquing male control over women. It is as if the story is noting that it is not women that are problematic, it is men.”
In other words, it’s the hyper-sexualization and objectification of women by men that’s the real problem, not the imagined behavior of the women themselves. If Kulp is correct, this subversive narrative about Rava’s own lack of control significantly undercuts the narrative highlighting the deep and destructive suspicion with which the rabbis view women who simply ask for an allotment of wine.
In the end, Rava doesn’t get what he went home for anyway, since his suspicious wife figures out the truth and, rather than getting in bed with her husband, runs the other woman out of town. Turning the tables on this story gives us some insight into not only the rabbinic mindset, but into the real sensitivities of men and women during talmudic times — and shows us that they, too, might have appreciated a little ditty by a seemingly like-minded 20th century feminist author.
Read all of Ketubot 65 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 9th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.