Beruriah was the wife of the second-century Rabbi Meir, a Jewish sage who lived during the time of the Mishnah. Though Rabbi Meir is one of the most often cited rabbis in the Mishnah, his wife was also known for her learning and wisdom.
Beruriah’s Early Life
Beruriah was the daughter of the Palestinian sage Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion. According to stories, even as a young child her intelligence was evident to anyone who spent time with her. In the Babylonian Talmud it is said that she learned “three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day” (Pesachim 62b) and even dared to challenge her father on the topic of ritual purity. Given her love of knowledge, it was no surprise that Beruriah was matched with a great sage when she reached a marriageable age.
Beruriah in the Talmud
Talmudic stories about Beruriah frequently highlight her intelligence along with other aspects of her personality. She is shown as someone who was kind, outspoken and witty. Jewish texts also recount the tragedies that Beruriah endured throughout her life.
In one story, when neighbors harass Beruriah and Rabbi Meir he prays and asks God to strike down those who are responsible. To this Beruriah responds: “Do you justify yourself because of the Psalmist’s pleas, ‘Let sins cease from the land?’ Sinners don’t have to die for sins to cease; it is sufficient that they stop sinning” (Brakhot 10a, Telushkin 147). In other words, Beruriah believed Rabbi Meir should have prayed for their neighbors to recognize the error of their ways rather than pray for their demise.
Another story recounts Beruriah’s reaction to a rabbinic proverb that said one should not talk too much to women. When Rabbi Yossi the Galilean asks her, “By which route shall we travel to Lod?” she replies: “Don’t the sages teach. ‘Don’t talk to women?’ You should have said, ‘To Lod, how?’” (Eruvin 53b, Telushkin 147).
Beruriah also endured significant hardship in her life. The Romans killed her father for teaching Torah and her mother and brother also suffered violent deaths. According to some sources her sister was abducted by the Romans and forced to work in a brothel. Rabbi Meir was able to rescue her, but the entire family was forced to flee to Babylonia as a result.
The Death of Beruriah’s Sons
One of the best-known stories about Beruriah has to do with the tragic death of her two sons. When both of her sons died suddenly on Shabbat (the reader is not told how they died) she laid their bodies out in the bedroom and waited for Rabbi Meir to come home. When he arrived, he asked about their sons but Beruriah changed the subject so that Rabbi Meir would not need to learn about his children’s deaths during Shabbat. The couple proceeded to recite the havdalah blessings that bring Shabbat to a close, then Beruriah asked her husband a question: “Some time ago, I was given a treasure to guard, and now the owner wants it back. Must I return it?” When Rabbi Meir responded that yes, of course she must return it, she led him into the room and showed him the bodies of their sons, saying: “These are the treasures and God has taken them back” (Yalkut Proverbs 964, Midrash Proverbs 37:76, Telushkin 148).
Beruriah’s death was not recorded in the Talmud. Rather, in the Middle Ages Rashi includes as part of his commentary on Talmud Avodah Zara 18b the tale of Beruriah’s seduction, adultery and subsequent suicide. According to this tale, Rabbi Meir asked one of his students to try and seduce his wife after she scoffed at the rabbinic notion that women are light-minded. Eventually the student succeeded and Beruriah hanged herself out of shame. Rashi refers to this series of events as “the Beruriah incident.”
While it is impossible to comment on the accuracy of this story, it is feasible that it was invented as an attempt to discredit Beruriah. Some scholars believe the tragic story of her death reflects a discomfort with the idea of a woman being as learned as the rabbinic sages.
- Telushkin, Joseph. “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History.” William Morrow: New York, 1991.
- Jewish Encyclopedia