By Shmuel Yosef Agnon
Translated from Hebrew by Yehudah Cohn
There was an eminent woman in town, from a good family, who would read Scripture and review Mishnah and Midrash, the laws and lore, and engage in give-and-take with learned men in the study house. Some took pride in her and sang her praises. Others were jealous, and said, “Torah study is not fitting for women – their sole purpose is to have sons, and their only acumen is at the spinning wheel.”
Now since a person’s knowledge extends only as far as the books at their disposal, she frequently came to the study house to delve into the books. Its denizens grumbled about her and said, “What is the woman doing in our midst?”, because she would tell them off for their singsong Torah practice, simulating study to trick people into thinking they were engrossed in Torah. They even fooled themselves, but couldn’t fool her, and came up with a stupid idea for taking revenge.
With their Torah knowledge they were incapable of doing anything, for her strength in the thrust and parry of Torah discourse was like a man’s. Even though a woman, her feats were those of men, and when they debated, she had the upper hand. So they got together and devised the idiotic plan of embezzling from the book-repair kitty, intended for repairing and buying books so as to increase Torah study among the children of Israel (whose holy ones donate money there when called to the Torah reading). Anyway, off they went and bought themselves ninety-nine folios of paper. In those days anyone who wanted to buy paper could just go and obtain as much as they wanted – not like our times, when an author can pen a good book but not secure the paper on which to have it copied. They bought this paper, took it to a book binder, and said, “Bind this paper for us in red goatskin leather over wooden boards and engrave The Book of Women’s Wisdom on the spine.” The bookbinder bound the paper for them with wooden boards covered with burgundy goatskin, as if it were one of those Talmud volumes published in Amsterdam, which are twice as large as the ones from Zulzbach. He engraved The Book of Women’s Wisdom on the spine in golden letters. The youths paid his fee, took their book, and placed it alongside the other large volumes. It stood there vacantly, all dressed up in gold and silver but with no inner self, jostling the books of our holy rabbis – like an ignoramus who puts on a long coat that rabbis wear and pushes his way into a group of great men, and not only that, but thinks he’s superior to them because his coat is brand new and theirs are worn. The youths could already sense a tiny taste of revenge in just anticipating that woman arriving at the study house, opening the book, and finding it empty.
Within a couple of hours the sound of her footsteps was heard. The youths seized their Talmud books and began to shake back and forth and raise their voices in sad melodies and joyful ones, in tones conciliatory and pleading, forceful and triumphant – as though they had vanquished the wicked proclivity to fritter away their time – until the entire study house resounded with song. They sat there without raising their heads from their books, as if Torah was all they had to their name. Then the woman came in and approached the bookcase. While standing there, her eyes suddenly lit up because she had seen a new book among the others. And not just any book, but The Book of Women’s Wisdom. She imagined it had been written by a woman, or that it included all original Torah contributions by women, much as the title indicated. Filled with pride, she felt elated, and jumping up onto the table, took the book out of the case, gave it a kiss and opened it. Then she saw it was blank; from cover to cover she found neither chapter nor verse of Jewish law, nor even a single letter of the aleph-bet. She was dumbfounded and embarrassed. Suddenly gargantuan laughter broke out that was enough to make the walls shake, and she realized that the youths had laid a trap for her. In order to be scornful, and mock her, they had put together a volume of paper which was beautiful on the outside and empty within, as if to say that any insight by a woman was similar in nature. Her mood turned as dark as the base of a cooking pot. She felt like smashing that volume against the faces of her abusers, but in the end she took the high road and pretended she hadn’t noticed anything. Taking The Book of Women’s Wisdom with her, she went home.
Sitting on her own, she had a look at the blank pages that the good-for-nothings at the study house had mockingly prepared for her. She became angry, furious that they had shamed her. But on considering how she might take revenge, she said to herself, If I think it through, I must confess there’s some truth there, as we don’t have a single holy book written by a woman. Rather than protest about the habitués of the study house, I ought first to complain about our female forebears. Had they left us any words of Torah, there would have been no room for the youths to make fun of me like that.
So she was sitting there, sometimes fuming at the denizens of the study house and other times at her predecessors. And then again, sometimes enraged by those women and other times by that crude mass of paper, designed to point out to her that women have no wisdom. In the end she pushed it aside, and began to consider all the pain that women face in this world of ours. The pain of pregnancy and childbirth, of nursing a child and raising children, and the grief caused by one’s neighbors. When women are rich there is the additional bother of maids, and when they are poor their faces become grimy in the kitchen. And after all that pain they are supposed to show their husbands a pleasant demeanor. When the latter are Torah scholars, then the women can become their minions in the next world, but otherwise they don’t even have that to hold onto.
Another woman, in her place, would have insolently reproached the heavens, but the Torah she had studied all her life stood her in good stead and prevented her from doing that. And furthermore, it helped her to willingly accept her sentence. She spread out her hands and said, “Blessed be He who made me as He wished.” Because she had recited the traditional benediction, she received a blessing as well, since the extra virtue of those benedictions, the ones coined by our Sages themselves, is in conveying a blessing to those who recite them. And the one she received was extraordinary perception. She could see all those great women to whom the Holy One Blessed be He had given root, from Egypt until now. Miriam, Moses’ sister, for example. She was a great prophet, who sang a song for the women just as Moses did for the men. And were you to say that only Miriam merited such greatness – being the sister of Moses and Aaron, the daughter of Amram and Yocheved – then how about the daughters of Tzelofchad? They had neither their father’s good deeds nor their brothers’ to rely on, and yet an entire portion of the Torah was similarly added because of them. And not only that, for the Torah stated, “The claim of Tzelofchad’s daughters is a just one!”
Might one say that only the women of the desert generation merited such greatness? That discerning generation who had witnessed all the miracles and marvelous feats which the Holy One Blessed Be He had performed for the people of Israel: the Exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, the quail and the well and the manna, the war against Amalek, and the gift of the Torah. Then how about Deborah the prophetess, the woman of torches, who used to judge the people of Israel and have them all dedicate their hearts to heaven? Or Hannah, the wife of Elkanah and mother of Samuel of Ramah, from whose prayer we learned the eighteen blessings? Or Ritzpah the daughter of Ayah, who derived the 289 indicators of uncleanness for birds of prey, with some saying the number was actually 295? Or Michah the daughter of King Saul who would don tefillin, and the wife of Jonah, who went to Jerusalem for pilgrimage festivals? And Huldah the prophetess, who prophesied – and when was that? In the days of Jeremiah the prophet himself! And Ruth and Esther in whose names books were written, and so too Judith, and Susannah, as well as the daughter of Nehunya the well digger, who composed poems and songs for the people going to pilgrimage festivals.
Or might one say that women only merited such greatness in days of old when the temple was still standing, and the Holy One Blessed Be He descended from the high heavens and imbued Israel with his divine presence, and the congregation of Israel was in a state of security and serenity? No! Even after we destroyed our temple with our sins, and honor was banished from Israel, one finds Tzofnat the daughter of Peni’el, who made seven fine legal distinctions in a single night. And how about Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir and daughter of Rabbi Hanina the son of Teradion, who learned three hundred laws from three hundred great men one autumn day, and would disagree with her own father? And about whom an old Talmud text states, “Well said, Beruriah!” And how about Yalta the wife of Rabbi Nahman, who trounced Ulla, and could guess many of the rationales for forbidden matters.
Could it have been that women were worthy at the time that the Talmud was composed because one of its six sections is entitled Women, just as men were worthy because of the sixty tractates of laws, corresponding to the 600,000 letters in the Torah, which in turn correspond to the 600,000 people who left Egypt and from whom all Israel descend like a chain? Then how about the daughter of Rabbi Samuel, head of the yeshiva? They said about the daughter of Rabbi Samuel, head of the Yeshiva of Babylon, that she was expert in the entire Talmud and the commentaries of the Geonim, and knew how to make her own original contributions. She would be seated, totally confined to her house, and young students from the entire land would gather and come there and request to hear Torah from her lips. She would teach them Talmud through her window, and the students would stand outside without looking at her. And even close to our own generation, great women are found who had mastery of Torah, and books cite legal opinions from their mouths. So we see that the Holy One Blessed Be He did not short-change the wisdom of women.
The woman became haughty and said, “Woe to you, boys. Tomorrow I will come into the study house and show you!” Once she began to feel pride, her own generation appeared to her. Even though it included very wise women, they had little knowledge of Torah. Her spirits fell and she grew sad. She recalled the humiliation inflicted on her by those good-for-nothings at the study house, who had called a crude mass of blank paper The Book of Women’s Wisdom. Her eyes filled with tears, and she began to cry.
Her little children came in and found her crying. They too started to cry, thinking they might have angered her and that she was crying about them. Her compassion for the children was aroused, and she put aside her own pain because of theirs. So she began to placate them, and gave them nuts and almonds, peaches, pomegranates, and toys, which pacify the little ones. They were still crying, so she said to them, “If you quieten down, I will tell you a story.” Once they heard that their mother wanted to tell them a story, they held back their tears and were quiet.
She went and sat down between them and began to tell a tale, so that eventually their hearts and minds calmed down, because pleasant stories calm the heart and soothe the mind. Even someone encountering woe, heaven forbid, forgets their troubles upon hearing a beautiful story. Once they had settled down, and felt better, the children began asking to hear more. The woman was relieved and began to have more ideas, because good stories edify their narrators. Even before she finished one story, another was waiting to emerge, and then a third, followed by a fourth. She sat there and told all the stories the Holy One Blessed Be He put in her mouth. Tales of days of old, and stories about the Sages, heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, sea monsters and men, flora and fauna, bird song and the murmuring of palm trees, allegories about creatures, allegory upon allegory. She sat there with the children and her mouth would spout all kinds of sweet things about what was and is no longer, and I owe you an apology if I have forgotten any. Each tale was pleasant and enjoyable – her words, my friends, were heard with delight – in clear and simple language, beautiful flowing poetry. She incorporated wisdom and knowledge, pleasing to both heart and ear, in each story. And still the children wanted to hear more, since when you give a child something sweet they usually ask for more.
Now this woman was preoccupied with household duties – cooking and baking, knitting socks, mending clothes, hosting guests, and all the while maintaining a pleasant demeanor for her husband. She did not have much spare time to sit and tell tall tales, but had the idea of taking pen, ink, and paper, and writing down some of her words. That way the children could read them whenever they wanted. And since she loved her children the way a mother does, she wrote everything on new paper in beautiful script, with ornate letters and Hebrew vowel marks – tastefully, knowledgeably, precisely, and artistically. Seeing as the books she wrote were handsome, inside and out, children wanted to read them. They read and it gave them pleasure. And she was unstinting with them and went on to add many books, until their titles alone filled the entire volume that the louts who hung around the study house had made to mock her. The children grew up and were accomplished in both their knowledge and in worldly pursuits, which lead to the wisdom of Torah – for all the world’s wisdoms are merely footnotes to Torah. They climbed ever upwards on time’s journey and built households, and took pride in their mother and sung her praises. They would say that the verse “Many women did valiant deeds but you have surpassed them all” applied to her, with scripture also saying “The wisdom of women built her house.” And may God in his mercy rebuild his House soon, speedily and in our days, and make our hearts rejoice, just as I delight in that woman’s wisdom.