Sunday, 29 January 2017


Meiri's Beit Avot published in Salonica (1821)


R. Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri (1249-1306)[1], whose original name was Don Vidal Solomon, was a Spanish/French Talmud scholar and supporter of Rambam (1135-1204) who he referred to as ‘the greatest of authors’.

Many of his extensive writings have a strong Maimonidean influence[2] and were known lean towards rationalism and tolerance (particularly of non-Jews). However, in some circles, he is regarded as being out of line with traditional thinking.

The Meiri espouses probably the most radically liberal view on Christianity and Islam that is to be found in all of Torah literature.  He posits that the notion of idolatry has absolutely disappeared from society (barring what he refers to as some fringes or ‘extremities’ of civilisation). 

Idolatry, in his view, has essentially become extinct, and replaced by more developed religions, with Christianity and Islam both falling under the broad banner of monotheistic religions. He refers to them as ‘umot ha-gedurot be-darcei ha-datot’, or ‘nations bound by ways of religion’, as opposed to the idolaters of old who thrived on total anarchy. See KOTZK BLOG 52

It is often alleged that Meiri’s writings were either ‘discovered’ or ‘rediscovered’ in recent times, after having been ‘lost’ for centuries. And because they were lost, they were excluded from the mesorah, or authoritative rabbinic tradition. For this reason, some modern poskim or halachik decisors will not revert to Meiri on any halachik matters.

In this essay, we will try to ascertain whether the Meiri texts were indeed lost or simply disregarded.


Rambam managed to spark four major controversies directed against him because of his views. The fourth controversy, which was spearheaded by Rashba[3], challenged Rambam’s alleged view that some Biblical figures were largely symbolic as opposed to having been real persons. The Meiri came to Rambam’s defence denying that accusation.

The Meiri then wrote a letter[4] expressing his position that freedom of thought should be upheld for the different scholars of all the different countries, without any interference whatsoever. (The debate took place in Europe and Rambam had been living in Egypt.)

The Meiri was now cast as a defender of Rambam and a dangerous promoter of independence of thought.


History has tried Meiri in the same court of public opinion as was Rambam.

Maimonides was severely criticised for his views, particularly as they were expressed in his Guide for the Perplexed. Some say the same person who wrote the Mishneh Torah could never have written the Guide. Others say he wrote for the censors.  Some say he wrote for a particular segment of society but did not intend those views to reach the mainstream.

Similar theories abound concerning Meiri. Of particular interest is the one that Jesuit priests inserted the more ‘broad minded’ views into the text in order to favour the gentiles.
These views are interesting but - besides the censorship issue – are largely unsubstantiated by historical evidence, and may fall into the category of ‘conspiracy theories’.


As mentioned, the common perception is that Meir’s writings were lost and have only been discovered recently.

MISHNA BERURA (1838-1933):

The Mishna Berura[5], published in 1904, often remarks; ‘now that we have the Meiri’, implying that previous generations did not have his writings.

CHAZON ISH (1878 –1953):

The Chazon Ish[6] popularised the notion that the Meiri’s works had been lost and only recently discovered. Therefore they fall out of the line with the mesorah transmission, to the extent that we can no longer rely on these views for practical purposes. See KOTZK BLOG 82.

The Chazon Ish writes that we cannot rely on manuscripts, because the scribes in previous generations would often take numerous manuscripts and compare them. They would then chooses the most common versions and use those as the basis for their texts. Therefore, if one discovers a manuscript today, there is no way of knowing whether it was a ‘discarded’ or an ‘accepted’ manuscript.[7]


Interestingly enough, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik held a similar view. He was also suspicious of newly surfaced texts and manuscripts.

He wrote:

If the chachmei hamesorah (the rabbis charged with handing down the tradition) did not see this text, then it’s probably wrong....If the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim did not know of the new Meiri, then the new Meiri could only be a curiosity – not a member of the exclusive club that included Rambam, Ramban and Rabeinu Tam.[8]


It seems as though the Alter Rebbe takes a middle of the road approach. According to him, we can rely on ‘many of the writings of the Rishonim which were not printed until recent times’ only in cases where for ‘serious prohibitions’ we can rule ‘more strictly’.[9]



In 1761, in the Italian city of Parma, a library by the name of Biblioteca Palatina was established. The library housed many old collections. In the mid-1800’s the library acquired a collection of about 1500 old Hebrew manuscripts and books, from a collection belonging to a Parma priest, Giovanni de Rossi from the previous century.

Although it is true that Meiri’s commentary to ALL the tractates of the Talmud (known as Beit haBechirah) was only available after the unearthing of a single complete manuscript found in Parma 1920,[10] many other writings on various individual tractates were available before this time.


During the 1990’s, R. Haym Soloveitchik (the only son of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik quoted above) seems to be at variance with his illustrious father when he wrote:

It is not, as commonly thought, because the Beit ha-Behirah has been recently discovered.

True, the massive Parma manuscript has been in employ only for some seventy years.
However, even a glance at any Hebrew bibliography will show that much of the Beit ha-Behirah on sefer mo’ed, for example, had been published long before Avraham Sofer began his transcriptions of the Parma manuscript in the nineteen twenties.”[11]

Accordingly, it is misleading to think that all the writings of Meiri were only ‘discovered’ a mere century ago, because many of his texts were known for centuries.

R. Haym Soloveitchik continues:

Rather, Meiri’s works had previously fallen stillborn from the press.
Sensing its alien character, most scholars simply ignored them...[12]
Accordingly, many of his writings always existed but were ‘ignored’ because of their ‘alien character’![13]

Other scholars reiterate the notion that some Meiri texts always existed, but offer a different explanation for their obscurity. They suggest that the reason why they were not often published was simply ‘on account of their exceptional length.’[14]

Nevertheless, the Meiri was certainly known although not many of his works were published.


Let’s look at some of these earlier, known and published writings, of the Meiri.
The following is an example of the 16th century Shitta Mekubetzet, written by R. Betzalel Ashkenazi (1529-1592) which quotes the Meiri:

This indicates that ‘harav haMeiri’ was known, and cited, four hundred years ago.

In 1795, part of the Meiri’s Beit haBechira was published in Livorno, Italy:

The Meiri also wrote a commentary to Mishle (Proverbs) which was published in Portugal as early as 1492. This was then included in Mikraot Gedolot (Amsterdam edition) 1724.


The Meiri was the first to bring the festival of Lag BaOmer, as we know it, to our attention:

It is interesting to note that although the Gemara[15] speaks of R. Akiva’s 24 000 students dying between Pesach and Shavuot, it makes no mention of the day called Lag BaOmer.

The first time the name Lag BaOmer ever appears is in Machzor Vitry (1175). But all it mentions is simply that Lag BaOmer and Purim fall out on the same day of the week.

The earliest source dealing with the customs and character of the day itself is to be found in the Meiri:

There is a received tradition from the Gaonim that on the thirty-third day of the Omer the deaths (of the students of R. Akiva) stopped, and we have the custom not to fast on this day. We also do not get married from Pesach until this time.“[16]

One cannot help but notice that later when the Tur[17] and Shulchan Aruch[18] speak of Lag BaOmer they do so rather cautiously. Both use the expression ‘it is said that this is the day the students of R. Akiva stopped dying’. 

 (The Tur, however, rather tellingly a few words later, uses the expression ‘I found a text’ referring to another source.)

Does this indicate that for some reason they were weary of the Meiri and refused to regard him as a reliable source?


While many of Meiri’s writings did indeed remain in manuscript form until quite recently[19], there does seem to have been a body of published literature which has always been available.

The question is:

Was the Meiri inadvertently excluded from the canon of rabbinic literature due to an accident of history in that works were simply lost over time?

Or, could it be as R. Haym Soloveitchik proposes, that Meiri’s writings were indeed considered too ‘alien’ and therefore intentionally ignored?

Were Meiri’s views too broad and too Maimonidean?

If the latter is true, is this not an example of an important Rishon having been sidelined and weeded out by latter sages, for not towing their party line?

The Meiri wrote a masterful introduction to Pirkei Avot, in which he traces the line of Torah transmission from the earliest days right up until his own time.

What an irony if he was excluded from - and became a victim of - that very chain of transmission he documented, valued, and wanted to contribute to.

[1] Some accounts record 1316 as the year of Meiri’s passing.
[2] According to Professor Haym Soloveitchik (referring to Meiri’s Beit haBechira): “Meiri, in quasi-Maimonidean fashion, intentionally omits the give and take of the sugya, he focuses, rather, on the final upshot of the discussion and presents the differing views of that upshot and conclusion.” The Meiri is also similar to Rambam in that his work, the Beit haBechira; “can be read almost independently of the Talmudic text, upon which it ostensibly comments.The same is true of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.
[3]Shlomo ben Aderet (1235–1310). 
[4] This letter was addressed to Abba Mari who together with Rashba entered into this polemic against Rambam.
[5] By R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Chafetz Chaim.
[6] Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, a leader of Chareidi Jews in Israel.
[7] See Michtavei Chazon Ish, Chelek 1, 32.

[8] Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Zev Eleff, p. 208

R. Soloveitchik made a similar comment about Otzar haGaonim (a collection of newly discovered texts from the Cairo Geniza): “Any responsa of the Gaonim not known to our Rishonim are only side factors. They cannot now become part of our mesorah.”
[9] Seder Mechirat Chametz (First few sentences) 92 [1398] b.

[10] See Contemporary Halakhic Problems, by J. David Bleich Volume 4, p.159.

[11] (E. g. Megillah Amsterdam, 1759; Sukkah Berlin, 1859; Shabbat Vienna, 1864.) Haym Soloveitchik, Rapture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy, Tradition 28, no. 4 (1994), 120-121, n. 54.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Nonetheless, apparently a student of R. Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik (Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk) claims that in Brisk there was a tradition that the Meiri, although a Rishon, was regarded as having the authority only of an Acharon.
[14] Quoted from: Virtual Judaica, Hiddushei ha-rav ha-Meiri.
[15] Yevamot 62b
[16] Meiri to Yevamot 62b
[17] Tur 493
[18] OC 493:2
[19] Some examples: The Meiri’s Chibbur haTeshuva was only published from the manuscript in 1950.
His commentary to Tehillim was only published in 1936.  The Magen Avraham, on Jewish customs in Provence, was only published in 1909. His introduction to Avot, published in 1995. His commentary to the Hagaddah, published in 1966. His collection of Derashot, published only in 1957. And his Sefer haMiddot, a work on ethics, finally published in 1966.

Sunday, 22 January 2017


[NOTE TO READER: Because the ‘Beruria Episode’ is recorded in rather graphic detail - which is beyond the scope of this forum - we will tone down the various versions of events and use euphemisms as far as possible.]


Beruria is known to many as the Eishet Chayil[1] or loyal and scholarly wife of the great Tanna, R. Meir, who lived during the 2nd Century. Beruria was also referred to as a Tanna, a title used to describe the Sages of the Mishna period (0-200 CE). It was very unusual to have such a title conferred upon a woman, and it is indicative of the great esteem in which she was held. Beruria was the daughter of R. Chananya ben Teradyon, one of the famed Ten Martyrs.

Her husband, R. Meir, was one of the greatest Sages of the Mishnaic period. Also known as R. Meir Baal haNes, his father was a descendant of Roman Emperor Nero (d. 68), who, according to Jewish tradition, had converted to Judaism. He is the third most frequently mentioned Sage in the Mishna, and every anonymous Mishnaic teaching is ascribed to him.[2] Out of the twenty-four thousand students of R. Akiva, R. Meir was one of only five survivors, along with R. Shimon bar Yochai.


Considered such an iconic, revered and scholarly couple, the following Talmudic extract comes as a complete surprise:

The Gemara in Avoda Zara 18b reads as follows:

R. Meir arose, fled, and came to Babylonia. There are those who say this was due to this incident[3], and others who say it was due to the Incident of Beruria.”

Rashi explains the ‘Ma’aseh deBeruria’ or ‘Incident of Beruria’ as follows:

One time she (Beruria) mocked the sages who had said that ‘women are light-minded’.
He (R. Meir, got annoyed and) responded: ‘By your life! You will eventually concede to (the accuracy) of their words.
He instructed one of his students to seduce her.
He (the student) tried for many days until she consented.
When the matter (of the set up) became known to her, she strangled herself.
And R. Meir fled (to Babylonia) because of the disgrace.”



Needless to say, this is a shocking tale by any account. Yet, even though its source is as rabbinically authoritative as can be - a Rashi on a Talmudic tractate – there are many who still refuse to accept it.

The fact is that up until the 20th Century there is no written record of anyone disputing the authenticity of this Rashi text. It is significant to note though, that only in the last hundred years or so have people begun to question this text.  One wonders how we were able to accept the text for nine hundred years from the time of Rashi (1040-1105), yet only recently come to regard it as objectionable.


Itamar Drori has written a well-researched article entitled the ‘Beruria Incident’[4] and I would like to share some of his findings:

He leaves open the possibility for some ‘text tampering’ by suggesting:

If the story was conceived by a political or ideological enemy (such as a Christian or Cuthian) for the purpose of slandering R. Meir and Beruriah, this would have been after Beruriah died and R. Meir fled, since both actions are described in the story.”

But he does point out that:

The temptation to ‘correct’ the situation, and present the Beruriah incident as foreign to Jewish culture, led to a disregard of the centrality of Rashi’s commentary, which was...already considered an integral part of Talmudic reading...’

This makes it very difficult to question an established Rashi text.

Yet many did.

A theory put forward by those who refuse to accept this Rashi, is that the first printed version of this text (Rashi on Tractate Avodah Zara) was only produced in Venice in 1520. This leaves room for someone with a dubious agenda, to have inserted it during the four hundred year interval when only manuscripts existed.[5]


Some have quoted world folklore tales that exhibit a degree of similarity to the Beruria narrative. For example, the story of ‘The Curious Impertinent’ - where the husband tries to prove his wife’s loyalty to him and asks a friend to test her in a similar manner.[6]

Then there is the Armean story of the Sultan whose extraordinary loyal wife believed all men were essentially immoral. This annoyed her husband who arranged to have his servant test his wife by seducing her, which he did.[7]

There are many other similar stories too and the theory is that these popular tales were somehow transposed to the Rashi text and also became part of our popular culture.


There is also the suggestion that this ‘rumor’ of R. Meir and Beruria was only written down well after the Talmud was redacted in the 6th Century. Although we have no textual evidence of this (as the Rashi text is the earliest written account we have), the theory is that no stories about any Tanaim had been written down during the Mishnaic period because, according to the Rosh, it was only permitted to start writing down Oral Law after the final redaction of the Talmud in the 500’s. See KOTZK BLOG 84. 

This would have been about 300 years after the alleged incident took place. During this time indiscretions may have crept in, and Rashi built on those inaccuracies, many centuries later, in the 1100’s.


Others, like Shalshelet haKabalah[8], accept the basic text but say that in actual fact it was not the student who entered the room but R. Meir himself (disguised as a student?).

According to Ben Yehoyada[9] it was indeed the student but he was a eunuch.

Another version also has it that it was the student, except that it was arranged that R. Meir would hide, to ensure that no contact took place.

A further interpretation is that Rashi merely says that ‘she consented’- not that anything came of the consent.


Another individual who researched the ‘Bruria Incident’ was David Goodblat, who published ‘the Beruriah Traditions’. He points out that the name Beruria is mentioned seven times in early rabbinic literature[10]

Of those seven references, two describe her as both the daughter of Chananya ben Tradyon and the wife of R. Meir. Another one describes her only as the wife of R. Meir. And the last four describe her, independently, without any familial connections. 

Six of the seven references to Beruria are to be found in the Babylonian Talmud, which was written in Aramaic, and one in the Tosefta which was written in Hebrew.

Goodblat mentions that; “all of the anecdotes which portray Beruriah as possessing an advanced education are of Babylonian Amoraic origin.” Thus, he argues that Beruria the scholar was more indicative of the (Aramaic) Gemora period than the (Hebrew) Mishnaic period.

He suggests that a ‘merging of personalities’ took place which created the Beruria of our story out of possibly three other characters – the daughter of Chanania ben Tradyon, the wife of R. Meir and an independent scholarly woman.

According to this view, the accuracy and historicity of Rashi’s account of R. Meir and Beruria being married to each other would be questionable.


On the other hand, Drori also quotes Maharatz Chayes (1805-1855), the only commentator in the Vilna Shas edition with a PhD, who said:

“...all stories which were disrespectful toward any of the rabbis of the Talmud were omitted...the incident of only alluded to in the Talmud...and Rashi there explains the occurrence according to that which he heard passed from one person to another orally, but was omitted from the Talmud.”

According to Maharatz Chayes, Rashi is filling in what the Talmud censored out, and he based himself on an established oral tradition.


But this was not the only time R. Meir was associated with an incident of this nature.
The Gemara in Kiddushin records:

R. Meir used to scoff at those who gave in to their desires. One day, Satan appeared to him in the guise of a beautiful woman on the opposite side of the river. There was no ferry so R. Meir took hold of a rope and proceeded across. When he got halfway, Satan left him (due to heavenly intervention)...”[11]


The ‘woman of valour’ image of Beruria is challenged by the following texts:

Rabbi Yosi the Galilean was going along the road. He met Beruria. He said to her, ‘by which way do we go to Lod?’ She responded, ‘Galilean fool! Did not the sages say that one must not converse too much with women? You should have asked, - by which to Lod?’”[12]

Beruria found a certain disciple who was reviewing his lessons in a whisper. She kicked him...(and said that one needs to use all one energies to preserve the Torah.)[13]

Another Gemara records how both Beruria the wife or R Meir, and Michal the daughter of Saul would wear tefillin, and the rabbis did not object to it.

The Ari Zal (1534-1572) explained that according to mystical tradition, the reason why Beruria wore tefillin was because her soul was rooted in alma d’duchra (the masculine world)[14].
(Could this insight not perhaps enlighten us as to why R. Meir and Beruria had such a complicated relationship?)
Another case involved a Talmudic dispute between Beruria and her brother, R. Shimon ben Teradyon. The case was judged on its merits and the verdict was pronounced: “R. Chanina’s daughter Beruria is a greater scholar than his son R. Shimon!

These texts indicate that R. Meir and Beruria were most certainly not an average or mundane couple. They were both professionally erudite and sometimes quite caustic and unconventional.


The difficulty with the ‘yes but’ theories is even if all these were to be correct, they add very little morality to redeeming the same basic tenor of a shocking story, that few can be comfortable with.

The difficulty with all the ‘text tampering’ theories, of course, is that one can’t pick and choose which primary texts we want to consider as authentic and which not. It becomes too much of a slippery slope because the same reasoning can be directed against other texts that deal not just with stories but with Halacha.

Unless there is absolute and compelling evidence without the shadow of a doubt, that a text was tampered with or manipulated, it is very dangerous if not devious, to suggest otherwise.

Personally, I find it fascinating how, when faced with such a challenging text, some who would never usually question a printed Rashi on the Talmud, are quick to do so in this particular instance.

Respect for Mesora (tradition as we have it) is sacrosanct. So much so that, according to the Chazon Ish, even were Moshe Rabbenu’s original Torah to be discovered today and found to be (slightly) different from ours, we would consider his Torah to be pasul (invalid) and our version to be kosher.  See KOTZK BLOG 82.

On the other hand, those who usually do not hesitate to question the historical accuracy of some Talmudic texts, are in this instance, quick to assume this text is authoritative.

Objectively, it’s difficult to know which of the views and theories are the most compelling. Subjectively though, each reader will form his or her own conclusion.

One thing is certain though - the ‘Beruria Incident’ provokes us to soul search the story, and forces us to form our own opinion one way or the other.


The Beruria Incident: Tradition of Exclusion as a Presence of Ethical Principles, by Itamar Drori.

‘The Beruriah Traditions’, by David Goldblatt JJS 26 (1975)

[1] In Avodah Zara 18b, R. Chanina declared Beruria to be the exemplary ‘Woman of valour, who can find?’ (Proverbs 31:10), after the manner in which she comforted her husband on the sudden death of their two sons, who both died on the Sabbath. She waited for him to arrive home, make Havdala and then asked whether an object held in trust must be returned to its owner. When he responded in the affirmative, she led him to the room where the boys lay and said; ‘G-d gave and G-d has taken away’ (Job 1:21).
[2] Gittin 4a. Some say his real name was Misha or Nahori but he assumed the title Meir which means ‘enlightener’.
[3] This ‘incident’ is also recorded in the Talmud, Avodah Zara 18a. Paraphrase follows:
Beruria said to her husband: ‘It is a disgrace that my sister sits in a house of ill repute (which is where she was taken as captive by the Romans)’. R. Meir immediately went to Rome with money and said: ‘If no forbidden thing was done to her, a miracle will occur’. He dressed as a horseman and located his sister-in-law, but she did not recognise him. She said that the way of women was upon her and that there were other more beautiful women there. He said he specifically wanted her. She declined. He then knew that this was her response to all who came.
He bribed the guard with his money to help them escape. The guard became fearful that he would be found out. R. Meir told him to say ‘G-d of Meir answer me.’ R. Meir showed how that expression could save him from man-eating hounds that were present. The guard was convinced and allowed them to escape.
Eventually the guard got arrested. He uttered the formula given to him by R.Meir and indeed was spared.
The Romans carved an image of R. Meir on all the gates of Rome and he became a wanted man.
One day they found him and gave chase. He ran into another place of ill repute, saw some non-kosher food there and pretended to eat it. The Romans let him go because they said: ‘If that were R. Meir, he would never have done that’.  For this reason he had to flee; - Others say he had to flee because of the ‘Beruria Incident’.
[4] The Beruria Incident: Tradition of Exclusion as a Presence of Ethical Principles, by Itamar Drori.
[5] According to Rav Aviner: “...early editions of Rashi do not contain this incident.  Perhaps a mistaken student put it in (Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv also explains that this incident never happened. Divrei Yaakov of Ha-Rav Yaakov Adas on the Teshuvot of Ha-Rav Elyashiv, p. 263).” I have been unable to find the earlier editions with this Rashi text removed. Please will someone point it out to me as I would love to post the reference because this would make for a very compelling argument. According to Drori: “The earliest known version of the Beruriah Incident appears in MS Parma Palatina 3155 (De Rossi 1292), the only manuscript containing Rashi’s full commentary of bAvodah Zarah.” (Emphasis mine). This manuscript became the basis for our printed Talmud texts today, which do record this Rashi. 
[6] See Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
[7] See The History of the Forty Vezirs
[8] II, p. 32
[9] Ben Yehoyada, by Yosef Haim of Baghdad, IV, Avodah Zarah, p. 175.
[10] 6 are in the Talmud Bavli and one in the Tosefta.
[11] Kiddushin 81a
[12] Eruvin 53b; BeEizeo derech nelech leLod? should rather have been shortened to BeEizeh leLod?
[13] Eruvin 53b, 54a
[14] In kabbalistic literature a ‘male’ or ‘female’ soul is not necessarily gender related. For example, a person who ‘gives’ or teaches is said to have a ‘masculine’ soul, whereas on who receives or learns is said to have a ‘feminine’ soul.