Parallels and Patriarchy - Berakhot 51
The second parallel concerns the status of women, and here the parallel is not in the values but in the personal reaction. ‘Ulla was invited to a dinner at Rabbi Nahman’s, where Nahman asked ‘Ulla to pass the cup to Nahman’s wife Yalta in order to spread the blessings to her. Despite the preceding Talmudic discussion that encourages such generosity, ‘Ulla refused, citing Rabbi Judah’s claim that “the fruit of a woman’s body is only blessed through the fruit of a man’s body,” since Deuteronomy 7:13 promises fruitfulness to “bitnekha - your belly” (masculine form of you). Because the Torah text has no vowels, they could have simply reread Deuteronomy as referring to a woman (bitnekh) and given her the cup. However, if Deuteronomy meant a woman, the Rabbis assume it would have said “bitna – HER belly” since the audience listening to Torah is, of course, men. A very different values system from liberal Judaism today, to say the least.
Yalta’s reaction, however, is entirely understandable – she heard that ‘Ulla refused to pass her the cup, and she rose up in a fury, went to the winery, and smashed 400 jars of wine. Rabbi Nahman tries to appease her by offering her a second cup of wine from the same flask, which he claims partakes of the same blessing. Her answer in so many words: what else could you expect from a jerk like ‘Ulla. In her anger at exclusion, we can hear a pre-modern frustration that found its voice in recent times, for the good of wine jars everywhere.
In tomorrow’s page, we will consider the discussion of differences between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel concerning blessings and Shabbat rituals. In the Talmud’s patient explanation of both sides of the argument, rather than simply articulating the winning perspective, we can take a lesson for political and personal disputes of our own times.
Rabbi Adam Chalom