Wives of Commoners and the Masculinity of the Rabbis: Jokes, Serious Matters, and Migrating Traditions

in Journal for the Study of Judaism
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This article analyses the migration of rabbinic narrative traditions between the land of Israel and Babylonia and examines plot transformations in these narratives in order to illustrate the cultural differences between these two centers of rabbinic thought. In particular, I explore the positioning of women as an internal Other and the construction of a rabbinic, masculine identity that is distinct from the masculine identity of the common, unlearned man. I will look at some brief, entertaining stories about a few rabbinic sages and their interactions with unnamed women and unidentified unlearned men.

Wives of Commoners and the Masculinity of the Rabbis: Jokes, Serious Matters, and Migrating Traditions

in Journal for the Study of Judaism




Clifford GeertzNegara: The Theater State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton: Princeton University Press1980) 136.


Levinson“Post-Classical Narratology” 82.


See Virginia BurrusBegotten Not Made: Conceiving Manhood in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press2000).


See Mark Masterson“Studies in Ancient Masculinity,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualitiesed. Thomas K. Hubbard (Oxford: Blackwell2014) 18-28. I have to mention here that Daniel Boyarin in chapters 2-4 of Unheroic Conduct which address rabbinic literature and rabbinic ideas about Torah study advances a thesis very much like mine although he stresses more rabbinic self-positioning in contrast to Roman ideals of masculinity rather than in contrast to other internal Jewish concepts of masculinity. My work is therefore a continuation and further development of Boyarin’s thesis.


See Lee I. Levine“The Sages and the Synagogue in Late Antiquity: The Evidence of the Galilee,” The Galilee in Late Antiquityed. Lee I. Levine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America 1992) 201-22 esp. 206-7.


See Daniel BoyarinCarnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press1993) 187-88 and see Galit Hasan-Rokem “Rabbi Meir The Illuminated and Illuminating” Current Trends in the Study of Midrash ed. Carol Bakhos JSJSup 106 (Leiden: Brill 2006) 227-43 esp. 236.


See Shmuel SafraiIn the Days of the Temple and in the Days of the Mishnah: Studies in the History of Israel (Jerusalem: Magnes1994) 159-68 [Hebrew]. See also Bernadette J. Brooten Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues (Missoula mt: Scholars Press 1982) 35-40 57-94 139-41 and cf. the skeptical view of Chad Spiegel “Reconsidering the Question of Separate Seating in Ancient Synagogues” jjs 63 (2012): 62-83 esp. 73-74 of whose arguments I am not fully convinced.


See Hasan-Rokem“Rabbi Meir” 237-38.


See Hasan-Rokem“Rabbi Meir” 238.


See BoyarinCarnal Israel65-66.


See Frank W. Nicolson“The Saliva Superstition in Classical Literature,” HSP 8 (1897): 2-40esp. 24. Leor Halevi Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society (New York: Columbia University Press 2007) 111 290 n.105; Karl Krumbacher ed. Der heilige Georg in der griechischen Überlieferung (Munich: Verlag der Königlich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 1911) 10 (line 15) and 24 (line 30). All these cases have been comparatively studied by Adam Bursi Holy Spit and Magic Spells: Religion Magic and the Body in Late Ancient Judaism Christianity and Islam (PhD diss. Cornell University 2015) 103-78. I thank him for sharing with me his work before it was submitted.


See Hasan-RokemTales74-75.


See Ido Hevroni“The Midrash as Marriage Guide,” Azure 29 (2007): 103-20esp. 111-12.


See BenovitzKol nidre152-53.


See HershlerThe Babylonian Talmud2:172-73.


For the textual version see HershlerThe Babylonian Talmud2:172.


See William HansenAnthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press1998) 107-10.


As proposed by Stein“The Untamable Stew” 250. The lamp has a certain sexual connotation. Indeed the translation of “gourds” to “lamps” expresses somewhat the mood of the woman probably feeling deprived of her husband’s love. Interestingly lamps appear in the story from the Palestinian Talmud too; see Stein “The Untamable Stew” nn. 34-36 and Hasan-Rokem “Rabbi Meir.”


See Carlin A. BartonThe Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (Princeton: Princeton University Press1995) 168-72.


See Victor TurnerThe Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press1977) 94-203.


I follow in this Ilan“The Joke” 75.


Stein“The Untamable Stew” 252.


See Masterson“Studies of Ancient Masculinity” 28.


See Masterson“Studies of Ancient Masculinity” 22. Mark D. Stansbury-O’Donnell “Desirability and the Body” in Companion 31-53 argues that virtus designates manhood or manliness as aggressive courage in martial endeavor; see also Boyarin Unheroic Conduct 94-99.


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