Boldness of Invention and Falsification: Gershom Scholem on Elias Gewurz

Gershom Scholem's acerbic wit was on full display in the notes he scribbled on works written by a particular Theosophist author…

Gershom Scholem (left), the founder of modern academic study of the Kabbalah, and Theosophist author Elias Gewurz (right)

Elias Gewurz (1875-1947), a Jewish Theosophist author, who wrote about Kabbalah, has until this point, not merited an entry in Wikipedia. Rather his biography is recorded here, on the “Theosophy Wiki” website. According to the site, Gewurz was born in Krakow and educated in Vienna. He later moved to the Canary Islands and during World War I immigrated to the United States, where he settled in Los Angeles. Gewurz lived at first in the “Krotona Colony” of the American Theosophical Society, which was located in Hollywood. He moved around a bit in California, and eventually settled in Ventura, where he died, apparently a bachelor.

Gewurz was quite active in the “Theosophical Society” and a number of his published works made their way to Gershom Scholem’s personal library, which can be found today in the Gershom Scholem Reading Room the National Library of Israel.

These works include The Diary of a Child of Sorrow (composed in Las Palmas, Grand Canary) and The Cosmic Wisdom – As Embodied in the Qabalah and in the Symbolical Hebrew Alphabet (both London 1914, the latter co-authored by L. A. Bosman and published as part of the “Esoteric Studies” series of The Dharma Press), as well as The Hidden Treasures of the Ancient Qabalah: Volume 1: The Transmutation of Passion into Power (Chicago 1918).

The follow-up volume to The Hidden Treasures, The Mysteries of the Qabalah, was “written down by seven pupils of E. G.” (“Yogi Publication Society – Masonic Temple”, Chicago 1922).

The first volume, based upon lectures given at the “Krotona Lodge” and the “Krotona Institute” of the Theosophical Society in 1915, includes a brief introduction into the nature of the Kabbalah.

Needless to say, Scholem was unconvinced by the dating of Rabbi Moses de Leon to the 12th (as opposed to the 13th) century and noted that with a “?” in the margin.

The Mysteries volume, which was composed not by Guwerz himself, but by his devotees, includes an interesting dedication as well:

In it we learn that the tract was composed by “one of the seven”, to whom Gewurz had pointed out the path, that he himself had trodden with “bleeding feet”. We also learn that this was to have been part of a much larger work on the Hebrew language that apparently was never completed.

But it was his 1924 volume Beautiful Thoughts of the Ancient Hebrews, published in New York by the mainstream Bloch Publishing Company: The Jewish Book Concern, that was to draw the ire of Gershom Scholem.

The work was published with an introduction by California Reform Rabbi Martin A. Meyer, a colorful figure, whose mysterious demise aroused much speculation at the time. Some of his remarks regarding Kabbalah are worth noting:

The truth is that Scholem had previously commented on the 1914 Diary of a Child of Sorrow volume, referring to Gewurz’s early work as one of “Pseudo-Kabbalah”.

He also noted that Gewurz’s family hailed from the Polish town of Dembitz and that he was a “theosophist”. The Dembitz connection was also noted in Scholem’s copy of Sefer Dembitz (a memorial volume, Tel-Aviv 1960), where information of Gewurz’s somewhat illustrious ancestors was preserved.

In his copy of Beautiful Thoughts, Scholem shared some of his own not-so-beautiful thoughts regarding our author and his work.

Scholem’s comments in English and in Hebrew are quite different. In the English, perhaps addressed more to the Bloch Publication Company than to the author himself, Scholem informs us that; “[Gewurz is] remarkable by boldness of invention and falsification of nearly all the quotations contained herein! And nobody has taken pains to examine his ‘sources’ and the swindle is going on!” As we shall see, some of Scholem’s terms here (“swindle” and “invention”) made their way into his marginalia as well.

Scholem’s Hebrew notes are of a biographical nature and inform us that;

“The author’s name was Eliyahu ben Alter ben Daniel ben Henich, a son of a prominent family in Dembitz. And I heard from Mr. Daniel Leibel [the author of Sefer Dembitz] the author who knew him as a youth, that around 1899 he travelled to England and it was rumored that he converted, and this is apparently an error. Rather he become a Theosophist, and see now in Sefer Dembitz…”

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Gewurz was actually from Dembitz, as claimed here, or from Krakow, as purported on the “Theosophy Wiki”, we learn from Sefer Dembitz that Gewurz’s ancestors included Chief Rabbis and rabbinic judges, as well as wealthy community leaders, until “the Rabbinate was conquered by the Hasidim of Ropshitz”.

Returning to Scholem’s critical comments on Beautiful Thoughts, they are interspersed throughout the volume, and continue the theme of Guwerz’s falsification and/or invention of sources. A few examples will suffice to demonstrate this point:



“a book which has never existed”



Scholem was, however, significantly more charitable (or more sarcastic?) towards the book in his brief review in Kiryat Sefer (1:4, 1925), describing it as “a slim anthology of Kabbalah. The sources are a bit strange and much…is not that of ancient Jewish thought, but rather of the author himself, and that is also good. Perhaps the author could inform us, which ancient Jewish book he was referring to under the title of ‘The Golden Gate’, for we have not heard of this book and blessed is the one who knows.” This is the book that Scholem had described in the margins as having “never existed”.

Gershom Scholem in his study, 1974, the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

Lastly, returning to the rumors alleging that Gewurz had converted to Christianity in England that Scholem had discounted since “he became a Theosophist”, one could ask if the two categories are in fact mutually exclusive or if he could have either progressed from Christianity to Theosophy, or if he had in fact become a Christian Theosophist who retained an interest in his native Judaism, including Kabbalah, as well.

In his work The Hidden Treasures of the Ancient Qabalah, in a fascinating chapter intitled “The Feminine Elements in Man and Their Redeeming Power”, Gewurz, seemingly ahead of his time, argues for the need for men to take on more feminine qualities and to balance their “masculine strength” with “feminine beauty”, even though they are “in reality one and the same thing”. He ends the chapter waxing eloquently about the figure of Jesus, whom he claims “was of a feminine nature. He only wore the body of a man, but His soul was womanly”. Leaving the gender issue aside, it is hard to imagine anyone other than a committed Christian lavishing such praise upon Jesus. Nonetheless, his call to the reader, that “we may grow juster and fairer and purer, more kind and more true, more silent and more humble”, is still relevant, more than one hundred years after his words were written.


Pigs in a Shtrayml

An image of a pig wearing a shtrayml, a fur hat often associated with hasidic Jews, understandably raises some eyebrows. One could be forgiven for thinking such images are part of an antisemitic propaganda effort, but in fact, the concept of animals wearing shtraymls has commonly been featured in works of Jewish satire…

There is a saying: "You can't make a shtrayml out of a pig's tail". Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz,

On December 19, 2016, a rally was held in Jerusalem attended by girls in grades five and six studying in Bais Yaakov seminaries in Israel. The Thursday evening rally was held at the Jerusalem Arena, a multipurpose sports center and one of the largest indoor spaces in Israel’s capital city. With eleven thousand seats, the arena is the home of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club. But the girls had not gathered for a sporting event. The goal of the gathering was to discourage and deter girls from pursuing academia – meaning degree- or diploma-granting higher education – even in institutions or programs that seek to cater to the Haredi population or that operate under Haredi auspices.

One of the speakers, Rabbi Pinhas Erlanger, summed up proceedings by declaring, “Academia is a stumbling block for the House of Israel, and the entire content stands in contradiction to it, and therefore one should not study in these places…not even online.”

The first speaker was Rabbi Baruch Shapira, a high school teacher in Kol Torah – a renowned non-hasidic Haredi educational institution in Jerusalem that includes a high school and a rabbinical academy. Rabbi Shapira related a conversation he had earlier that day with Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman (1914–2017). At the time of the rally, Rabbi Steinman was widely regarded as the foremost religious authority of the non-hasidic Ashkenazic world. Besides being a renowned Torah scholar, Steinman was also the head of the Degel HaTorah faction of the Agudat Yisrael political party in Israel’s Knesset. Consequently, a message from the respected and influential centenarian carried significant weight.

According to the message delivered by Rabbi Shapira as reported by news outlets, Rabbi Steinman supported the rally, summing up his distaste for Haredi academic programs with a pithy remark: “Haredi academics?! That is a pig with a shtrayml.”

Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz,

In Jewish imagination, the pig is the paradigm of something non-kosher and the very antithesis of holiness. Hence, when a Jew refers to something or someone as a pig it is nasty and can be particularly hurtful. The flip side of a bellicose statement like “a pig with a shtrayml” is that it conjures up an incongruous image with a powerful message.

Rabbi Steinman’s crisp – though offensive – quip may have been drawing on a Yiddish expression. For example: ‘From a pig’s tail, you cannot make a shtrayml.’ The expression is often taken to mean that from something bad you cannot make something good. Alternatively, the expression may mean that something holy, like a shtrayml, cannot or should not be made from something that is impure. Another possibility was that Rabbi Steinman was thinking about a different Yiddish expression: ‘If you put a shtrayml on a pig, does that make him into a rabbi?’ If these Yiddish expressions were Rabbi Steinman’s points of reference, then he was suggesting that holy Haredi society cannot include non-kosher academia.

Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz,

A shtrayml would not be found among the clothing of the primary school girls in attendance, nor in the wardrobe of the women who were the target of the rally’s larger message decrying academia. Why then did Rabbi Steinman mention the shtrayml? He himself did not wear a shtrayml, so he was not talking about his own headwear. Moreover, most of his followers were kneitsch wearers, that is, non-hasidic Ashkenazim who wore fedoras rather than fur hats. The shtrayml, however is a symbol. In the image that Rabbi Steinman conjured up, the traditional fur hat represents the Haredi community, while the pig represents academia. Putting a shtrayml on a pig is absurd; so too is Haredi academia. The two just do not go together.

Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz,

Animals wearing shtraymls are not a common image in Jewish consciousness, though the Yiddish expressions indicate that Jews have toyed with the notion of shtrayml-wearing livestock. The truth is that other farm animals have also been topped with the furry headwear.

In 2011, an American Yiddish magazine that caters to hasidic communities advertised a shtrayml sale before Passover. The full-page advertisement showed a lamb wearing a shtrayml, tied to a bed in the desert with pyramids in the background.

The image evoked the biblical Exodus where lambs were procured four days before the children of Israel left slavery (Ex. 12:3-6 – “let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household…”). According to the sages, the lamb was tied to the corner of the bed before Passover evening when it was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten.

The shtrayml-wearing lamb is a bizarre sales pitch: Which shtrayml-wearing Hasid would want to be tethered to a bed in the desert for four days before being slaughtered? Presumably the peculiar image was designed to capture the attention of the magazine’s readers. Furthermore, the image relayed a message: a new shtrayml – just like securing a lamb in Egypt – was an essential, perhaps even divinely mandated, element of Passover preparations.

Indeed, as Passover approaches, many shtrayml sellers advertise their wares. For those who cannot treat themselves to a new fur hat, specialized cleaning services are offered.

“Beauty and perfection at the top” – an ad for “Shem Tov Shtraymlach”, appearing in ⁨⁨Ha-Maḥaneh Ha-Haredi⁩, May 26, 2016, from the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

It is possible that the earliest source for an animal donning a shtrayml comes from Lubavitch lore – an interesting fact in itself given that Lubavitch Hasidim no longer wear fur hats. The story which I will presently recount, harks back to the dawn of Hasidism.

The tale – as so often happens with this fabulous literary genre – appears in different versions. The earliest recorded version appears to be an 1879 discourse delivered by Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Maharash, 1834–1882). The discourse would have been delivered in Yiddish, though a Hebrew transcription is what has reached us. The exact term shtrayml does not appear; rather, a more general term is used: kova shel shabbat, a Shabbat hat. Maharash’s son and successor, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn (Rashab, 1860–1920) also recounted the tale, as did his son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (Rayatz, 1880–1950).

Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (Rayatz), source: Jewish Educational Media

When retelling the story in 1941, Rayatz specifically referred to the shtrayml. So too did Rayatz’s son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), when he recalled the tale in 1984. The numerous retellings suggest an abiding lesson which transcends a specific context.

According to this story, the Besht (Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, ca.1700–1760) instructed his disciples to close their eyes, and they suddenly perceived an ox wearing a shtrayml. The Besht explained that this was a Jew who sits and eats ox meat in honor of Shabbat. Alas, instead of savoring Shabbat, he relishes the ox meat.

The power of this colorful image lies in its ability to evoke a response in the audience – which in this case was the followers of the Lubavitch hasidic masters. Pondering the odd scene, the hasidic audience would be able to imagine themselves as shtrayml-wearing oxen. The shtrayml in the tale is what indicates that the figures are not real oxen; rather, they are Hasidim who are acting like oxen. The moral of the tale is compelling. You may be decked out in hasidic garb, but you are behaving like an animal. 

Of course, the enduring lesson is not limited to the shtrayml wearers. No type of respectable clothing can justify behavior that is unbecoming of a human being. Whether that timeless message has anything to do people studying in academic institutions is another matter.

A Hasid with a young student, both wearing shtraymls. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel


The shtrayml and other elements of the hasidic wardrobe are discussed in Levi Cooper’s forthcoming book Hasidic Relics: Cultural Encounters, to be published later this year by Maggid Books.

This Book Also Goes Up to Scholem: On Gershom Scholem and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

The fascinating correspondence between these two giants in the field of Judaic Studies reveals much about both men, including their impressions of a young Leon Wieseltier…

Gershom Scholem (left) and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (right). Photo credits: the Aliza Auerbach Archive at the National Library of Israel; Monozigote

As is well known, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was always happy to receive gifts of books for his collection. According to one interpretation, that is the reason that he maintained an empty shelf in his home library, so that his guests wouldn’t get the impression that there was no room for him to receive more books! Interestingly, on the 23rd of Tamuz in the Hebrew year of 5737 (July 9, 1977), Scholem received not one, but two books, with dedications from the same author.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was an American scholar of Jewish History who taught initially at Harvard and from 1980 at Columbia University, where he served as the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society. Baron had been Yerushalmi’s PhD advisor at Columbia and it must have been satisfying for both men when Yerushalmi “returned home” after his long sojourn at Harvard. I myself left Columbia with a degree in history in 1979, missing the opportunity to study with Yerushalmi by one year. He is widely remembered for his 1982 work, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.

The first of the books that Yerushalmi presented to Scholem was his own historical work, published the previous year, The Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the Royal Image in the ‘Shebet Yehudah’ (Cincinnati 1976).

Jerusalem. 23 Tamuz 5737. Jerusalem
To Gershom and Fania Scholem
In friendship

The second, more intriguing book, was a slim volume (29 pages) published in Bombay India in 1916, Guide: The Secret Doctrine of the Soul and Body With Miscellaneous Information Useful in Daily Life, by one “Judah Shallum Kasooker, Jerusalemist”.


Jerusalem. 23 Tamus 5737
And thus, this book also goes up to Scholem!
-To Gershom Scholem  
In friendship
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

I was unable to find any information regarding the author, Judah Shallum Kasooker, or why he refers to himself as a “Jerusalemist”. This volume is the only title of his in the National Library of Israel, which holds three copies. His picture is also somewhat intriguing:

As you can see, he distributed his book for free (only additional copies were charged), and each of the copies at the NLI has a different name written in the blank space. The Yerushalmi – Scholem copy had been given to Joseph David Gadkee.

The work was dedicated to the author’s “brethren who are lovers of the Jewish religion”. Gershom Scholem of course stamped his own copy, as was his custom.

It is beyond the scope of this post to properly review this guide, but among the topics discussed are levels of the soul, reincarnation, prayer, the Sabbath, charity, death and “separation of the sexes”.  Of course, one has to finance one’s publications, especially when they are distributed for free. Our author ran an advertisement on the last page for “Vegetable Pain Drops”, which were good for more or less whatever ails you!


Perhaps it should not surprise us that the author himself was an alternative healer, who did not charge the poor for his services.

Returning to Yerushalmi’s dedication, including the phrase “This book also goes up to Scholem”, Yerushalmi was obviously alluding to Scholem’s infamous “negative catalogue” of 1937 –“קונטרס עלו לשלום : רשימת ספרי קבלה וחסידות המבוקשים לאוסף ספריו של גרשם שלום” -This was a six-page list of 111 works that Scholem hoped to purchase for his library. He would later lament in his autobiography,  From Berlin to Jerusalem, that the main result of this folly was that book dealers subsequently raised the prices of works they knew Scholem was after!

At this point let us zoom out and take a look at the Scholem – Yerushalmi relationship. Firstly, it’s important to realize that Scholem was Yerushalmi’s senior by 35 years, so the relationship was hardly equal. By the time that Yerushalmi began his academic career Scholem was already a world-renowned scholar, amongst the most important academics in the field of Judaic Studies.

Gershom Scholem in his study, 1974, photo by Aliza Auerbach, the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

In the NLI’s Gershom Scholem archives, there is preserved a fairly extensive correspondence (about 15 letters) between the two, which took place between 1973, when Yerushalmi was a young lecturer at Harvard, until 1980, when he was transitioning to his new position at Columbia, and only two years before Scholem’s demise. Initially Scholem wrote to Yerushalmi in English and Yerushalmi responded in beautiful Hebrew. Later they would both write in both languages.

Their letters display a great degree of mutual admiration and as time went on and the two visited each other (along with their spouses), a close personal friendship as well. Amongst the topics they discussed were publications and translations of some of Scholem’s books as well as the upcoming (1979) book by David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History. Their mutual fascinations with Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin were also discussed as well as young scholars-in-training at the time, especially Leon Wieseltier. The file also contains two letters written after Scholem’s death. They are a letter from Yerushalmi to historian Prof. Jacob Katz in 1984, in which he sent Katz his correspondence with Scholem for possible publication, and a letter from Fania Scholem (his widow) to Yerushalmi in 1987.

We will take a look at a few of the highlights from their correspondence, which began after Yerushalmi sent a copy of his 1971 work, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto: Isaac Cordoso: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Jewish Apologetics. Scholem (30.1.73) praised the work and encouraged Yerushalmi to also publish the letters of Cardoso’s brother, the Sabbatian theorist Avraham.

“I consider your work an excellent contribution” – click to enlarge

Yerushalmi for his part was ecstatic at Scholem’s positive evaluation of his work and responded (2.3.73) with superlative praise for Scholem and his status in the world of Jewish scholarship. Among his comments, “I merited to receive praise and encouragement from the generation’s greatest scholar in Judaic Studies…since beginning to compose my book I couldn’t restrain myself from one recurring thought, which is – what will ‘he’ say?”

“Praise and encouragement from the Gadol HaDor” – click to enlarge

In a very interesting letter from Yerushalmi ( 11.1.76), which may not have actually been sent to Scholem, Yerushalmi spoke glowingly of Scholem’s book, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, which he would have read in the original German edition (1975), as the English translation was published only in 1981.  He confessed that in addition to finding the book enlightening on the subject of Benjamin, it was so as well on the subject of Scholem himself. He chose however not to go into detail, as “I hardly have the temerity to go on writing to you about yourself”. Last but not least he shares with Scholem his “obsession” regarding Franz Kafka, “one of the very few writers who ‘speak’ to me in a particularly intimate way”.

“I hardly have the temerity to go on writing to you about yourself” – click to enlarge

In a wide-ranging letter from 3.4.76 Yerushalmi opened with thanks to Scholem for sending him a copy of his book Devarim B’Go, and closes with a request to Fania Scholem to assist them in finding an apartment to rent (or swap) on their upcoming trip to Jerusalem. In the body of the letter, Yerushalmi laments having to serve as head of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. The up side to his undesired administrative tasks is the opportunity to interact with scholars from the Arab world, though he assumes that, “the majority return home to Tripoli or Damascus, and point to me as proof of the authenticity of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion'”!

“…me as proof of the authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – click to enlarge

On the eleventh of January, 1978, Yerushalmi informed Scholem that he was sending to him, together with the letter, three “segulot” (amulets), two that had been written in the United States and a third from Tunisia.

“I’m enclosing three segulot…” – click to enlarge

This letter also contains the beginning of what would become extensive correspondence regarding David Biale’s proposed book Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter Culture, which would be published the following year by Harvard Press. The book, based upon Biale’s prior PhD dissertation, was the first work regarding Scholem himself, and thus all involved wished to proceed with caution.

“Do you know this man [Biale] and his work? If so, please give me your opinion about him.”- click to enlarge

Lastly, Yerushalmi mentions that he does have satisfaction from a few excellent students, one being [Leon] Wieseltier, who would go on to a successful career as a literary critic and as the literary editor of the “New Republic”. Scholem would also comment about him in later correspondence.

On February 12, 1978 Scholem responded with a four-page handwritten letter on a variety of topics. The great majority dedicated to a response to Yerushalmi’s question regarding David Biale and his proposed book regarding Scholem. Scholem responds at great length (also enclosing one page of comments that he had previously sent to Biale himself), and among other things, writes that, “My general opinion is that it is a serious and interesting book…I would be positive about its publication”. On the other hand, “I disagree on certain things which on the one hand suffer from ‘overinterpretation’, while on the other, many sources he is unaware of are ignored”. Scholem goes on to provide a list of books and articles that in his opinion Biale should incorporate into his research. He closes this part of his letter with one specific criticism and writes, “regarding the influence of Hermann Cohen’s ideas on my perspective, this is a brash hypothesis that seems unfounded to me…I have never dreamed of such a connection and even now that Biale has revealed it, his words are not at all convincing”.

Scholem returns at the end of his letter to the topic of Yerushalmi’s promising student and writes, “I consider Wieseltier to be a very talented young man. He, however, is at risk of spreading his talents too thin. It would be appropriate for someone like you to invest in bringing him close”.

Click on any page of the letter to enlarge

Yerushalmi responded on April 24, 1978, attempting to allay Scholem’s concerns regarding Biale’s forthcoming book. “I would certainly have authored a different book about you, but I think this book is serious enough that it deserves to be published. It is the first attempt to understand your oeuvre, and others will come to correct and to add… Biale is a flexible young man, and he wants to please you. Even though some points could easily be refuted, let’s not forget that at the end of the day, this is his book, and he is fully responsible for it”.

Click to enlarge

The final letter that we have is from over two years later (10.6.80), when Yerushalmi informs Scholem that he will soon be moving from Boston to New York and returning to Columbia University. With that, it appears that their intensive spurt of correspondence came to a close. Scholem died two years later in early 1982, Yerushalmi in 2008, not before achieving, somewhat like Scholem, status as one of the preeminent scholars in the field of academic Judaic Studies.

“We are moving to New York in late July or early August…” – click to enlarge


Yalta – The First Jewish Feminist

If you haven’t heard of Yalta yet, it’s okay – many people haven’t. But as the second most mentioned woman in the Talmud, Yalta does deserve more fame, especially as her daring escapades left many speechless. Often described as the ‘first Jewish feminist,’ Yalta was a leading woman of the time, going around smashing barrels of wine, adjudicating for women’s issues, contradicting the highest regarded rabbis, and rewriting ancient laws to finally include women in Jewish practices

"Miriam" by Laura James. Cover art for "Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne" - Wilda C. Gafney. Published by Westminster John Knox Press, National Library of Israel collections

There is a general frustrating tradition to render women in the Talmud nameless. At most, one can occasionally expect a side note mentioning “the wife of so and so.” But amongst the few named women in the Talmud is a strong-willed, brave person who could reliably be described as Judaism’s first feminist – or at least the first Jewish feminist to be so outspoken about her beliefs.

“Miriam” by Laura James. Cover art for Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne – Wilda C. Gafney. Published by Westminster John Knox Press, National Library of Israel collections. Cover art – Miriam by Laura James

The Babylonian Rabbi, Rabbah bar Avuha, was a student of the famous Rav – Abba bar Aybo – and a sage in the second generation of the amoraim, the Jewish scholars who lived from 200-500 CE and codified many of the teachings of the Oral Torah. He resided in Babylonia where he became a religious judge. Rabbah bar Avuha was also related to the exilarchs, the leaders of the Jewish community in Persian Mesopotamia, and may have been an exilarch himself. This afforded him prominence as both a rabbinical authority and a nobleman within Persia. According to legend, he was also a friend of the prophet Elijah who gave him leaves from paradise, making him rich, but it’s up to you to decide for yourself whether he gained his wealth through his political prowess, or encounters with prophets in the Garden of Eden.

Either way, he was able to provide a nice quality of life, by 200 CE standards, for his family. His family included one daughter with a larger-than-life personality: Yalta. This very Yalta is the second most-mentioned woman in the Talmud (the first most-mentioned woman in the Talmud is the daughter of Rav Chisda.)

Cover art by David Parkhurst for Rav Hisda’s daughter: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery. Book I, Apprentice – Maggie Anton. Published by Plume, National Library of Israel collections

But before we get to Yalta, we must first meet her husband – in an article about feminism it is a tad ironic to insist on putting the man first, but chronology is chronology!

Rav Nachman bar Yaakov was a student of our friend Rabbah bar Avuha, and he also served as the chief justice of the Jews who were subject to the exilarch, so in a way the two men were also contemporaries. Rav Nachman certainly had his own achievements, including being the head of the school of Nehardea, but he had a slightly wacky personality, to say the least. For one thing, his ego was sizable (Sanhedrin 98b, Sanhedrin 5a, Bava Metzia 66a). He also had a raging superiority complex and would treat those who he saw as below him (which was nearly everyone) poorly.

When Rabbah bar Avuha’s yeshiva was destroyed, Rav Nachman offered him the head position at his own school. In return, Rabbah bar Avuha offered him a wife. A fair trade, don’t you think? Thus it was that Yalta married Rav Nachman, and they lived happily ever after, enjoying a great degree of comfort.

Jewish Identity in American Art: A Golden Age Since the 1970sMatthew Baigell. Cover art by Matthew Baigell. Published by Syracuse University Press, National Library of Israel collections

But it wasn’t always a quiet life, for, as mentioned, Yalta was a bright spark and would often stand up for what she believed in. Many stories can be told to exemplify her fiery character, but none is so prominent as the story told in Berachot 51b. Yalta and her husband were hosting a meal in their home, at which the renowned Rabbi Ulla was eating. After saying their blessings upon concluding the meal, men and their guests would pass around a Cup of Blessing filled with wine, giving each recipient the chance to say a prayer for their own good fortune. On this occasion Rabbi Ulla was given the honor of leading the blessing, and once he was finished, he ignored Yalta and gave the cup straight to Rav Nachman. Rav Nachman, a loving husband, or perhaps a husband seeking to avoid a marital dispute, asked Ulla to pass the cup to Yalta.

“Babylonian Talmud,” Gail Renlund. Cover art for Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice – Judith Hauptman. Published by Westview Press, National Library of Israel collections

Ulla replied “The issue of a woman’s womb is blessed only through the issue of a man’s belly (Deuteronomy 7:13.)” In effect, Ulla was telling the table that women only conceive because of the blessings of their husbands, and that it is pointless and even wasteful to include women in the sacred Cup of Blessing practice as their spiritual satisfaction can only come via a man. He also relegated womankind in supposing that all they should be concerned to pray for is childbirth, and ignored the fact that maybe Yalta wanted to pray for something other than having children – (gasp!) To avoid all doubt, it is worth mentioning that Ulla’s claims were unfounded and his exclusion of women directly contradicts what is relayed in the Torah itself, but that’s not the point here.

Women Praying at the Western Wall,” L. Genut. Cover art for The Women of the Talmud Judith Z. Abrams, published by J. Aronson, National Library of Israel collections

Yalta was furious. She stood up from the table, ran into the storeroom, and smashed 400 barrels of wine, obliterating hundreds of cups of wine at the refusal of her one. Rav Nachman implored Ulla to reconsider his decision to ostracize Yalta and Ulla reluctantly obliged, but he wasn’t going to go down so easily. Ulla found a new, comically large and less beautiful cup and handed it to Yalta for the blessing, mocking her request to join in and branding it as greedy. This unsubtle dig seemed to be aimed at women in general, as if to ask – “You want wine now too? Is it not enough that you get the privilege of serving men while owning nothing and being someone else’s property? Fine – I’ll give you wine! I’ll give you loads of wine!”  But don’t worry, Yalta wasn’t going to stand for his mockery, and demanding the last word, she took the cup from him while proclaiming “from travelers come tall tales and from rag pickers lice,” in effect completely illegitimizing both Ulla’s opinion and character.

Yalta:  A Talmudic Novel – Rochama Weiss. Cover art by Dov Abramson Studios. Compiled by Leah Schnir. Published by United Kibbutz Publishing House, National Library of Israel collections

Maybe breaking so many barrels of wine seems a tad overreactive, but a second opinion states that she only broke the seals on the barrels. Yalta was upset that she wasn’t able to partake in the sacred act of blessing, and she wanted to show that her desire was not in vain but in a noble effort to include women in this commandment. The Torah teaches that when something is destroyed for a reason (including to teach a lesson), there is a lift on the prohibition of wanton destruction. Moreover, the number 400 has the same numerical value as ayin hara, “the evil eye”. Ulla had acted in an unjust way, so to show him what real justice meant, Yalta broke the seals on the barrels of wine and distributed their contents to underprivileged people, so that they could use the wine at their own meals.

Beruria the Tannait: A Theological Reading of a Female Mishnaic Scholar – Dalia Hoshen. Cover art by Rowman & Littlefield. Published by University Press of America, National Library of Israel collections

Yalta wasn’t just concerned with expressing her opinions in alcohol-related escapades. At a time when a woman having an opinion was unthinkable, let alone unheard, Yalta would actually advise her husband on different matters. On one occasion (Kiddushin 70b,) she instructed Rav Nachman to distance himself from those who wouldn’t respect his opinion, and he obliged, going as far as to show one adversary a note with Yalta’s advice and explaining that he would defer to his wife and leave the uncivil discussion at once.

Halakhic Literature and Talmudic Commentaries Responsa, concerning a rebellious wife. Published, with translation, by Friedman, Jewish Law Annual 4. Cambridge University Library, “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

This brave woman didn’t always need her husband to stand up for her, though. When she received a ruling from a rabbi concerning her menstruation and the Jewish laws of family purity, she felt dissatisfied with the rabbinical ruling. Not one to simply accept her fate, she took matters into her own hands and sought out a new Rabbi who would give her an answer that she could accept (Niddah 20b.)

Yalta was able to understand that she hadn’t been given an optimal ruling by the first rabbi because of her vast medical knowledge (Gittin 67b) and understanding of the intersection between Jewish law and medical ethics, an area of study still being discussed today, 1800 years later! Yalta was educated by her father, to the shock of many, and became a learned woman. Had she been born a mere few thousand years later she might have become a doctor or a scholar herself. As it was, she had to be content standing up to rabbis and making religious rulings for herself (Chullin 109b.)

Paraphrases of Talmudic sources concerning women. Cambridge University Library, “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

It was perhaps because of this that her guidance was so sought out by those around her, especially women (surprise surprise!) In fact, her guidance was so necessary to her community that on Shabbat, when it was generally forbidden to carry anyone in a sedan chair, her ever-doting husband allowed Yalta to be carried into town to speak to her disciples (Beitzah 25b.)

Women and Womanhood in the Talmud – Shulamit Valler, translated by Betty Sigler Rozen, published by Brown Judaic Studies, National Library of Israel collections

What is interesting is that Yalta’s husband wasn’t exactly at the forefront of the feminist movement himself. One might go as far as calling him a misogynist, and they would have serious reason to do so. While serving as the judge in a theft trial, he dismissed the claims of the wronged party (Sukkah, 31a.) Having had her business stolen from her she was understandably distressed. But Rav Nachman dismissed the entire case with a crass statement that “she is a noisy woman.”

And it is true that Rav Nachman was not much one for outspoken women. He even went so far as to decry prophets themselves for the simple sin of being female. “It is not seemly for women to be conceited” he said, continuing that “the two prophetesses Deborah and Huldah had hateful names, namely, ‘bee’ and ‘weasel’” (Megillah 41b.) Even the women anointed with prophecy by G-d himself were, sadly, still women in the eyes of Rav Nachman and thus should not have been speaking in public, unlike his wife.

Jewish Feminism: Framed and Reframed – Esther Fuchs. Published by Lexington Books, National Library of Israel collections

If this is how he spoke of the prophetesses, you can imagine how he treated his female slaves (reportedly, his treatment was – “without regard to their moral sensibilities.”). So how could he stand up for his wife’s blatant acts of empowerment while vilifying the other women around him? One might guess that it was love which drove him to abandon his sexism and support his wife, but Rav Nachman was certainly not so loyal to Yalta. Once, when traveling to the city of Shchenziv he told his men to bring him a woman who could act as his ‘wife’ during his time in the city. His plan was to divorce her when he left the town and return to the none-the-wiser Yalta at home (Yoma 18b.)

So if it was not love, what did draw Rav Nachman to Yalta, this proto-feminist of huge proportions? Feminist scholars flocked to Yalta’s ideas (Niddah 20b) about the laws of niddah (Jewish laws pertaining to menstruation,) and even today’s rabbis sing praises for the revolutionary standpoints of Yalta.

Maybe it was her “assertiveness and forcefulness” which scared Rav Nachman into doing what she said? Maybe we can believe the theory that he only married her after her former husband’s demise, and both age and pity led him to accept her nature? But the favored answer is that he was simply aware of her goodness and truthfulness. Yalta’s very name means truth. The numerical value of the name Yalta adds up to 441, which is the same value as the Hebrew word for truth – emet. As Ben Yehoyada said “her proper and truthful actions spoke for themselves.”

Miriam Leading” by Jackie Olenick. Cover art for The Women of the Torah: Commentaries From the Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah – Barbara L. Thaw Ronson. Published by J. Aronson, National Library of Israel collections

What is certain is that Yalta broke the glass ceiling before we even had a term for it. She wouldn’t have called herself a feminist because the movement hadn’t even been thought of, let alone vocalized. But being the second most mentioned woman in the Talmud comes with a responsibility to stand up for womankind and in this respect it’s fair to say that Yalta exceeded with flying colors.