Ladies everywhere, Hillel and I wish you the happiest Mother’s Day. And this is meant for all women – biological/adoptive/foster mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, sisters, teachers, nurses, pediatricians, nannies, pet mothers, and dear family friends – all of you give so much to our children, and have always done so. If I missed anyone, be sure to let me know in a comment… And gentlemen – please don’t feel excluded. Hillel and I will properly thank you on Father’s Day for all the wonderful things you do.
For mother’s day, I’d like to jump a little into the Talmudic future ahead of Hillel and tell about a wonderful woman who became the foster mother of the great Talmudic Scholar, Abbaye. She presents a glowing example of the respect and love Jewish women received throughout ancient times. It is a common misconception that women were treated as chattels at worst, and as second class citizens at best. In fact, women were very highly regarded. It is true that men and women did not have the same duties and the same lifestyle. At a time when the community as a whole was much more important than the individual, and each person, male and female, young and old, knew that serving the community and the deity was their first goal, life was arranged on different rules than the life we lead. However, each individual valued his or her dignity, and experienced considerable satisfaction as a part of something greater than himself or herself. Division of labor does not necessarily designate a higher or lower value of the labor involved. Is a Biblical presiding judge like Deborah less valuable than a Talmudic rabbi? I doubt it. Queen Esther, saving her people at a risk to her own life, is much more respected than several Biblical kings who had betrayed their people, like, say, King Ahab.
Abbaye lived between 278-338 C.E. His father died before he was born, and his mother died in childbirth. The little orphan was adopted by a kind uncle, who eventually took care that the child would get excellent education, but during his early years, the uncle gave him to a foster mother. What was the relationship between the uncle and the foster mother is not clear, but it is certain she was not his wife. It is possible she was an aunt, but there is no proof. We also know that she was a highly respected physician, and Abbaye lived in her house.
Little Abbaye loved her with all his heart, and called her Em, meaning mother, even when he grew up. Her views and suggestions are quoted not only by him, but by many other rabbis we meet in the Talmud. She is always mentioned in the same way: “Em said to me.” And that little statement makes the words that follow it authoritative; they are never disputed. As a result, her influence continued for almost two thousand years, since she is still regarded as a Talmudic authority.
The diversity of her medical advice is intriguing. Diet, herbal medicine, and especially pediatrics, were her areas of expertise, which make sense since a learned woman’s opinions on these subjects clearly have more weight than those of a man. She was an authority on the readiness of a sickly or weak boy for circumcision. She stated the right time for boys and girls to start fasting during certain festivals, thirteen and twelve, respectively, showing that she understood the fact that girls mature earlier than boys. She determined at what age a child was emotionally and mentally ready to start studying Scripture and Mishna. Her knowledge of children’s welfare and growth was outstanding. But she also had some understanding in psychology – even though the word was not invented yet – because she tells her patients how to handle malicious gossip. In all these subjects the rabbis, who were men, did not hesitate to obey her directives.
What I find most important here is that she is not presented as a strange phenomenon, a prodigy.
Rather, she is talked about in the most matter of fact way. This was not a new idea. You can find the same attitude years before, in the Old Testament, in the description of the Woman of Valor in Proverbs 31. The woman described there is strong, practical, hard working, and kind. She makes her own decisions, tends to business and commerce as well as her home, teaches her children and her attendants, and is generally the center of the household. Much later, in the days of Maimonides, you meet women who are teachers, merchants, scholars, and artisans. Hardly second class citizens…
As for Hillel, I have already mentioned in previous posts how much he respected and trusted his wife. In one famous story, he is certain that when she is delayed in supplying hospitality and dinner to their guests, there has to be a good reason, and he is right. She tells Hillel and the guests that she felt she had to provide food to a hungry, poor man. He had come to see her unexpectedly, and it delayed her; she gave the man their dinner, and cooked another one for them. Hillel greatly approves of her judgment and tells her so, and it is clear that the guests agree.[i] In another story, Hillel’s disciples are concerned about loud cries that come from a house in his neighborhood, and are afraid something terrible happened to his family. Hillel calmly assures them it could not possibly be happening in his house. He knows that his wife would be able to handle any situation and take charge without panicking. No wonder they had such a happy marriage and a brilliant family.
[i] Notice that she is cooking the meal herself, and servants are not mentioned. Hillel is known for refusing to take money from the community he led – he believed that even a leader must support himself and his family by earning his own living. Also, from several quotations it seems that Hillel and his wife believed in living modestly and avoided unnecessary luxury. May all leaders come to this view…