Book review: A new spin on the Talmud’s tales

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The stories are generally short with blunt prose and few adjectives; their authors offer few details about people’s emotions. Yet, the tales that appear in the Talmud – of rabbis and their wives, Roman matrons, the Angel of Death and God – have often been used to teach moral and ethical lessons. In “A Bride for One Night: Talmudic Tales” (The Jewish Publication Society), Ruth Calderon, instead, sees them as a source of literary inspiration. Calderon, who has a Ph.D. in Talmud and is a member of the Israeli Knesset, reinterprets the tales – focusing on “the personal experiences of the heroes and heroines of the stories” – in order to understand daily life in rabbinic times, including how families were structured and societal restraints on marriage and love. She also notes how the stories shed light on the differences between Jewish life in rabbinic Palestine and Babylonia.
Calderon looks at 17 stories, first offering her translation of the talmudic tale, then a creative retelling that offers far more detail than the original story, before analyzing both versions. In her expansion of the stories, she often strays far from the talmudic version. At times, Calderon flips the meaning in order to challenge readers, both those familiar with the stories and those who are not.
The title chapter “A Bride for One Night” offers an unusual view of marriage. The selection from the Talmud is less a story than two statements: “When Rav would visit the city of Darshish, he would announce, ‘Who will be mine for a day?’ And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce: ‘Who will be mine for a day?’” From these lines, Calderon offers the first person narrative of a widow chosen to be Rav’s wife for his stay in the town. Arranging the marriage is part of the community’s way of welcoming the great rabbi who visits a few times a year in order to answer questions of law. Most of Rav’s time is spent in the house of study, but it seems he doesn’t want to spend his nights alone. The question of whether or not the marriage will be dissolved after his visit is left open, although the narrator doesn’t expect it to last.
In her commentary, Calderon notes that Rav and Rav Nachman were great scholars who frequently traveled to different towns. The Talmud seems to accept without comment that these men would marry a woman for the extent of their stay in the city and then divorce her when they left. Some later commentators dislike this idea, suggesting that the rabbis would bring the women home with them, something Calderon sees as problematic as the short marriage. Her version addresses the marriage from the woman’s point of view: she wonders about the women who were chosen, whether or not they sought the marriage or only took part because they were poor and hungry, or had no other option in life. Yet, Calderon also believes the story offers us an opportunity to review our ideas about marriage. For example, she wonders if “in our own day, could we consider just for the sake of a thought experiment, that this type of arrangement might be a possibility for men and women who find themselves stationed temporarily in unknown cities? So that they would spend one day, one weekend, one week, married to another, to a temporary spouse?” She notes that Judaism’s marriage ceremony does not contain the phrase “‘til death do us part,” meaning that divorce is always an option. While not promoting temporary marriages, she does challenge readers to open their minds to other possibilities.
Even when I disagree with her spin on a story, Calderon manages to challenge my interpretation; she often finds something positive to say about a story I originally saw in a negative light. For example, in “Lamp,” Rabbi Akiva’s son spends the first night of his marriage studying Torah. He asks his wife to hold a lamp for him and she stays awake until morning in order to bring him light. When Akiva then asks in a cryptic way whether or not he is happy with his wife, the son declares he is. Calderon’s retelling is again told from the point of view of a woman, this time the wife of Akiva’s son, who wonders if she’s done something wrong: Not only is her new husband not coming to bed, he ignores her except to ask her to bring the lamp and stand beside him.
In my mind, neither version offers a positive view of marriage, yet Calderon sees the story very differently: “Instead of dominating his bride, the son of Rabbi Akiva invites her into a partnership. A covenant. He gives up the chance to sleep with his virgin bride on their first evening together, an act that is mandated by tradition and regarded as the consummation of the wedding night. Instead, he involves his bride in his study of Torah, and in so doing, he creates a new paradigm for what might take place in the bridal chamber: A man and woman stand almost entirely naked, and in between them rests a page of text and a burning flame.” She suggests the tale offers the couple a chance to repair what occurred in the Garden of Eden, “with the sensual pleasure of the fruit replaced by a book and by the joy of intellectual and spiritual connection.” While I love the images, I find it difficult to believe this reflects the meaning of the traditional text.
In her commentaries on two stories, “Return” and “The Matron,” Calderon notes there is a difference of opinion between those in the land of Israel and in Babylonia about whether or not scholars should spend long periods of time in study houses far from their homes. Versions of tales from Israel “attest to a strong opposition to the practice of living as a ‘married hermit,’ which was common in Babylonia.” There are also major differences in the way the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds viewed the figure of the Roman matron. The images from Israel are generally positive, with the women seeking information and/or learning from rabbinic figures. In Babylonia, where the rabbis would never have encountered a Roman matron, the stories are far more negative: “The Roman matron created by the Babylonian imagination was beautiful, sensual, wealthy and learned. And, in addition to all these traits, she had a special fondness for Jewish sages,” whom she seeks to distract from their studies, hoping to lead them into wrongdoing. The differences between the two Talmuds is a topic I find fascinating; I can only hope Calderon will explore this in more detail in a future work.
Calderon has created a fascinating body of work in “A Bride for One Night,” which would be perfect for a class or study group since her interpretations beg to be discussed and analyzed. Her explanations are clear enough that even readers with no previous familiarity with the Talmud will be able to understand the book without a teacher. This rich work offers a new and exciting glimpse of Jewish literature and the Talmud.